Fifteen Minutes of Feminism

46. Fifteen Minutes of Feminism: The Dark Money Behind the Abortion Bans (with Cecile Richards)


October 11, 2021

With Guests:

  • Cecile Richards is an activist, reproductive rights advocate and former president of Planned Parenthood. She is also the cofounder of the women’s political action group Supermajority, and co-chair of American Bridge PAC. Most recently, she launched the #OffTheBANWagon project, which aims to hold the corporations that bankroll extreme anti-abortion state legislators accountable. Richards is the author of the memoir Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead.

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In this Episode:

In this episode, we discuss the dark money underwriting anti-abortion laws like Texas’s near-total abortion ban, S.B. 8, which bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest AND places a bounty on those who aid or abet people who want to terminate their pregnancies.
But people are fighting back. The Abortion Ban Accountability project—led by Corporate Accountability Action—is calling out corporations who fund legislators who stand against abortion rights and LGBTQ rights. While the #OffTheBANWagon campaign aims to put pressure on several companies, one is singled out in particular: AT&T. The company has spent almost $700k financing the campaigns of the primary sponsors of S.B. 8 in Texas—all while claiming “one of the company’s core values is gender equity and the empowerment of women.”

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Background Reading:


00:00:00 Michele Goodwin:

Welcome to 15 Minutes of Feminism, part of our “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” at Ms. magazine platform. This is a show where we report, rebel, and you know, we tell it like it is.

Today I’m joined by Cecile Richards to speak about the dark money behind anti-abortion laws: who’s paying for that movement and are these companies that you want to support? In our new initiative to hold the corporations that bankroll the Texas abortion law SB8 accountable, she recently posted a tweet calling out AT&T for being the leading funder. 

Cecile Richards is an American activist who served as the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund from 2006 to 2018. She’s the author of Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead—My Life Story.

Cecile, it’s a real pleasure to have you with me today, and many people will remember you and know you from your work at Planned Parenthood. Can you just tell our listeners a little bit about what that journey was like in terms of working at Planned Parenthood, leading it during what has been an intense fight against reproductive health rights and justice, and now transferring the work that you were doing from there into this new effort?

A May 2018 protest in Chicago against Trump’s imposition of the gag rule. The gag rule used to prevent healthcare providers who receive federal funding under the family planning program from referring patients for abortion care. (Charles Edward Miller / Flickr)

00:01:27 Cecile Richards:

Sure. Thanks, Michele, and it’s so great to be on with you all and thanks for this incredible service you provide to the world of helping us all figure out what we can do to, you know, continue to advance the work I think most of us have been doing for our entire life. 

I did have the real honor of working with Planned Parenthood for a little more than 12 years as the president and of course, it’s a more than a hundred-year-old institution. It is now being ably led by my friend, colleague, just wonder woman, Alexis McGill Johnson, and it’s an organization that both provides healthcare to millions of people every year despite all the political, you know, landmines that are thrown our way, but also is an important advocacy organization and of course, we’re talking in the midst of a very … it’s always a hard time, there’s always something but you know, I just left the state of Texas where, of course, we have an abortion ban in effect and so, I would say that Planned Parenthood is not only, and in Texas is a good example, they provide affordable quality healthcare to so many folks, many of whom who have very few options, but they also are on the front lines of both litigating about and advocating for expanded reproductive healthcare access for all people.

I guess that’s sort of the journey I was on and it’s the journey I continue to be on in my work now—not only with Supermajority which has been, you know, focused on expanding the political participation of women and people who care about equal rights, as well as my work with American Bridge which is really focused on turning out voters in the midterm elections.

00:03:21 Michele Goodwin:

Could you have anticipated, Cecile, when you took on that role that you would have been in the fight in some ways of your life?

00:03:47 Cecile Richards:

Well, Michele, I’d love to tell you, oh, I thought it would always going to just get better, but I actually think we’ve seen … look, the struggle for equal access to healthcare, voting, everything has always been on us and in some ways, and interestingly Texas is a bit of a microcosm of I think what’s happening in the bigger world. 

Cecile Richards speaks at a women’s round table event in Minnesota in 2016. (Lorie Shaull / Flickr)

So, just, you know, mini history lesson here, in Texas the Republican party was really sort of taken over by the extreme far right. Actually when my mother ran for reelection for governor, I mean, so this has been a long time back, although it has taken this many years for them to completely solidify their control over the Republican primary process and the voting process. 

Texas is a state which is now a majority minority state as they say, which is an oxymoron because if they aren’t a minority any more, they’re a majority—but anyway, majority of people of color state, where we are getting more representation of women, of young people, of people of color kind of breaking this stalemate we’ve had for decades.

So, I think this is all kind of coming crashing up together so, I don’t think it’s any accident that in a state where the voting population is changing, the attitudes of people is changing, young people so much more progressive, that we were also seeing this development of an authoritarian state where both people’s voting rights are being infringed upon in a way even beyond what we had historically seen, and that they’ve taken away abortion rights, I think this is the last throes of a, you know, patriarchal, racist political system that is trying to do everything they can to keep the levers of power together.

And so, I guess I see it as not … I mean, discouraging for sure, maddening, enraging, but in some ways not that surprising.

00:06:01 Michele Goodwin:

Not that surprising. So, one of the efforts that you are undertaking, and I think that there are people that are really excited about this, is to call out those businesses that have been part of the funding or that have supported politicians that have enacted or been part of drafting, creating, signing onto laws that would restrict abortion rights. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

00:06:29 Cecile Richards:

Sure. I mean, yes, American Bridge has been part of an effort to call out the corporations that have as you say, you know, poured thousands of dollars, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign coffers of the very people, Governor Greg Abbott, the Republican-led legislature that have now effectively ended access to safe and legal abortion in Texas, and so, we’re doing everything we can to expose that because to me this is a moment that there’s no place to be on the sidelines, you know? You’re either aiding and abetting the perpetrators of these atrocities or you’re saying, you know what? As an employer, as a responsible community citizen, as a business provider, we are actually going to take a position and take a stand against essentially the ending of rights of millions of people in the state of Texas. 

I’ve been heartened that there are some companies that have done this and have really gotten out there and I think it’s important that we thank them and applaud them and challenge the rest of corporate America to do the same because again, you know, the whole history of reproductive access and the fight for reproductive rights has really, like almost exclusively fallen on women and of course, with Black women as in every important issue really being on the front cutting edge and on the front lines. 

So, I just think it’s time to say, you know what? We don’t need to do this on our own and in fact, it’s the responsibility of everyone to be engaged and that includes companies that live in, do business in, take advantage of a state like Texas and there is no time like the present.

An abortion rights rally on the steps of the Texas Capitol on Wednesday, Sept. 1, the day the six-week abortion ban went into effect in the state. “Abortion is essential. Abortion is health care,” the group chanted. “Bans off our bodies!” (Roxy Szal)

00:08:19 Michele Goodwin:

It seems to me that that’s like a page from the playbook that was used during the civil rights movement which was, of course, very successful in calling out businesses and making sure that businesses would be accountable.

How can people find information about what businesses are supporting S.B. 8 and other kinds of anti-abortion measures, and to broaden this in terms of a reproductive justice lens, that what we’re talking about here is anti-abortion but it’s also anti-contraception, it’s anti-reproductive healthcare all together?

00:09:03 Cecile Richards:

So, first I’d say some groups, and UltraViolet is a really good example. It’s a group that’s been publishing the top corporate donors to the Republican party and they’ve done a lot of great work in Texas so, that’s one resource and I hope there are more. I mean, I think we are collectively, we’re going to continue to do more on this and I think it’s really important that we both as citizens we express our support for those businesses that have stepped up and show them some love as well as calling out, because I think sometimes, you know, we’re better at aiming our ammunition at the people that are doing bad stuff and we don’t always remember to actually appreciate the folks who are doing a good job. So, check out UltraViolet.

Look, the point you make is just so important that this is not just … one, this whole abortion ban in Texas didn’t just like drop out of the sky. This has been the agenda of the Republican party for the last, you know, two or three decades as I said earlier. This has been a slow march to try and end access to all kinds of healthcare, in fact, you know, just recently the Biden administration finally restored the ability of Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers to participate in the family planning program.

So, the Republicans have also been trying to end access to I mean, not just birth control, I mean cancer screenings. It’s pap smears. It’s just this extraordinary effort to end access particularly for people with low incomes, people who live in rural areas, people who have the least access to healthcare and that ability for them to actually take control of their own lives and their own bodies. Texas is I think number one, or number two, it was always a competition for the most number of uninsured per capita and of course, the same politicians that have passed this abortion ban refuse to expand Medicaid access to people that don’t have health insurance.

Michele Goodwin:

My guest is Cecile Richards. She’s an American activist who served as the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and president of the planned parenthood Action Fund from 2006 to 2018. She’s the author of Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead—My Life Story

Cecile, what I want to ask you about now is that with the backdrop that you’ve just shared, what do we make of how these legislators view the value of women’s lives?

Cecile Richards:

It is interesting and I was really listening carefully to the speeches and the remarks at the rally in Austin and this is really clear for folks. I think both the political nature of this, that this is not some rogue group out on the fringe of society that has somehow passed these terrible restrictions, this is the Republican party. This is their agenda and I do believe that’s important because I think in people’s, you know, moments of total despair, and there is a lot of despair right now about what the atrocities that are happening, it’s important that people understand who’s behind this and what they can do to actually make a change.

Michele Goodwin:

Cecile, before I let you go and turn to a question of silver linings, I want to pick up on a thread that you’ve mentioned throughout the show, which is that the majority of the anti-abortion measures taking place at the state level have been led by Republican legislatures, even though the majority of Republicans let’s say in the state of Texas actually disagree with S.B. 8, the law that was signed into place by Governor Abbott. It restricts abortions after six weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape, or incest. 

And of course, that calls into history, Roe v. Wade itself, which was a case that struck down a Texas anti-abortion law. It was a 7–2 opinion, the majority of those justices were Republican appointed. In fact, five of those seven were Republican appointed and Justice Blackmun, who wrote the opinion in Roe v. Wade was appointed to the court by Richard Nixon.

So I’m also wondering as part of an ongoing conversation, just what’s happened in that space. I mean, even in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, its justices Kennedy, and also O’Connor that provide a rallying cry for the legitimacy of Roe. So that’s something important for us to think about, especially given how daunting this backdrop can be and the threats to Roe v Wade going forward. 

That said, Cecile, on every show we ask about silver linings. And even with that backdrop, what do you see that’s positive going forward? What can people do?

Cecile Richards:

Yeah. Look, I know, and any good organizer you’ve got to give people something to do because the point is not to just to raise despair but then to create action, so I’d say first of all people are doing a lot to take care of women and pregnant people right now in Texas. It’s important if you don’t do anything else maybe send 25 bucks to the abortion funds in Texas or support an organization that’s actually on the front lines of taking care of women because they are doing amazing service in impossible circumstances, and talking to the docs there is heartbreaking, the stories that are coming out and are going to come out.

Second, tell your own story. You know, I had an abortion, I talk about it. I think it’s important to say as you said, not only is abortion safe it’s actually very common. And of course, most people who have abortions are already parents and they’re making decisions with full realization of the responsibility, the joy, and what it means to actually raise a family and raise kids.

But third, this is a political problem and we have great litigators, you know, figure out some ways around this. We can raise money to support clinics and folks on the front lines, but ultimately this has to have a political solution.

And I guess I’ll end on the point that you really started here which is, you know, the people of Texas did not rise up and demand an end to safe and legal abortion in this state—quite the opposite. The people of Texas are kind of like folks in other places. What they want right now is they want an energy grid that works so, they don’t get, you know, frozen out of their homes and particularly our elderly, and they want access to good public schools for their kids, including trans kids which, of course, is another area that this Republican governor has gone after. They want access to affordable healthcare, end these outrageous maternal mortality rates. And they want to be able to vote and they want to be able to elect people who represent them.

That’s where the Republican party… they’re like the dog that caught the bus, right? They’ve been trying to make abortion illegal for many, many years and now because of this Supreme Court they have succeeded and it is incumbent on us that we shine a light on the misery that they have created, these stories of the people who are affected, and help other people understand in the state of Texas or wherever you live that your vote is critical to determining who’s making decisions about the most fundamental personal aspects of our life and that includes our pregnancies.

00:17:43 Michele Goodwin:

Cecile, thank you so much for joining me today.

00:17:54 Cecile Richards:

Thank you, Michele, really appreciate it. 

00:17:57 Michele Goodwin:

Friends, that’s it for today’s episode of 15 Minutes of Feminism, part of our “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” platform at Ms. Magazine. I want to thank my guest, Cecile Richards, for joining us and being part of this critical and insightful conversation, and to you, our listeners. I thank you for tuning in for the full story. 

We hope you’ll join us again for our next episode where we will be reporting, rebelling, and telling it like it is. It will be an episode you will not want to miss. 

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This has been your host, Michele Goodwin, reporting, rebelling, and telling it like it is. “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” is a Ms. Magazine joint production. Kathy Spillar and Michele Goodwin are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal and Oliver Haug. Our social media intern is Lillian LaSalle. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandi Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez, music by Chris J Lee, and social media assistance from Lillian LaSalle, and Stephanie Wilner provides excellent executive assistance.