Ninety-seven years ago, just ten days after opening her Brooklyn-based birth control clinic, Margaret Sanger was arrested for handing out pamphlets to women lined-up around the block. At ten cents apiece, the pamphlets containing basic information about reproductive health were in violation of the law.
Nearly a century later, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, stood before a standing-room only audience at Hobart and William Smith Colleges to talk about the organization Sanger founded, an organization which now sees three million people in office and more than 50 million people online each year.
In welcoming Richards to the President’s Forum, President Mark D. Gearan painted a picture of the Women’s Rights movement, and its deep roots in Upstate New York and nearby Seneca Falls. “We have the good fortune to welcome one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world,” said Gearan. “Particularly for these Colleges, with our coordinate heritage and history, and particularly in observance of the 40th Anniversary of the Colleges’ Women’s Studies program – what better speaker to start off our spring President’s Forum Series?”
“Cecile Richards is an extraordinary leader,” Gearan continued. “She has been an articulate spokesperson for the issues of women’s health and reproductive rights engaged in the policy issues of our time – and found herself, in the recent election cycle, at the very intersection of policy and politics.”
In commenting on Planned Parenthood’s media attention, Richards said: “Some of you may have noticed that in the past couple of years, we have been in the crosshairs of politicians in America; but the truth is, we’ve been a hot topic since we started 97 years ago. Ninety-seven years ago, it was illegal to even talk about birth control. For many young people, it is hard to imagine that access to birth control is a relatively recent thing.”
This, Richards explained, forever changed the lives of women across the United States. Access to birth control, she said, has had an enormous impact on the ability of women to pursue an education and attend college. In fact, a third of the wage gains women have made since the 1960s are a direct result of the birth control pill. “It is hard to overstate the impact this has made on women’s lives and women’s economic futures,” Richards stated.
Despite the advances the country has made in the last century, Richards believes that we remain backwards in reproductive rights and birth control issues. The United States has the highest unintended pregnancy rate of any Western industrialized nation, as well as incredibly high teen pregnancy and abortion rates. “We are fighting the same issues we have been fighting for 50 years,” said Richards.
Although the battle over reproductive rights is one that Richards sees going on forever, the future, she believes, is on the side of Planned Parenthood. “Technology and the advances in medicine combined with this radical, uncensored ability to get information is changing the ability of your generation to get access to reproductive healthcare and reproductive services – and I think will change the future.”
Accompanying Richards on her visit was Thomas Subak ’88, the Chief Information Officer at Planned Parenthood, who has been responsible for much of the recent focus on technology at the organization. Thanks to Subak and his team, the organization’s website had more than 50 million visitors last year who were able to receive immediate and accurate birth control information 24 hours a day. Planned Parenthood has seen great success in their efforts partnering with bloggers, circulating information on the microblogging platform Tumblr, and running live-chats which allow anyone to anonymously message questions or concerns to a Planned Parenthood employee – day or night. Since its inception, the organization has talked to more than 160,000 people through text and chat.
Richards pointed out that not only do unplanned pregnancies alter the course of a life – and effect the education of thousands of women – STDs are also a major issue that even a basic knowledge of birth control could help to curb. In the United States, Richards said, nearly half of those newly diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection are young people under the age of 25.
“This is how young people and teenagers are getting information about questions and topics they are afraid to ask anyone else about,” Richards said. “Our entire mission is to be a source of non-judgmental information about reproductive health care. Planned Parenthood and the internet is a match made in heaven.”
Social media has also helped to generate increased support for Planned Parenthood. It is through platforms such as Facebook and Twitter that groups are able to organize, rallying in places like Virginia, Texas and Washington, D.C. to oppose the current record number of bills concerning women’s reproductive rights. The result of the recent back and forth on Capitol Hill regarding women’s reproductive rights has meant not only continued funding for Planned Parenthood, but the support of two million more citizens – including many men and young people.
“We are doing the same thing that Margaret did all of those years ago,” Richards remarked, who noted that 1 in 5 women in the United States have visited Planned Parenthood at some point in their lives. “We do more to prevent unplanned pregnancy and the need for abortion than any other organization in this country – and we have for 97 years.”
“Technology is going to be our savior in many ways. It is going to get more information to people, it is going to reduce the barriers to healthcare, and it is going to allow us to organize,” explained Richards. “Progress is not inevitable, it is earned. Now we’ve got better tools with technology and social media; alone they will not change the world, but using it together, we will.”
Following her President’s Forum address, Richards engaged the audience in a thoughtful and vibrant question and answer session, and discussion regarding the future of women’s healthcare and reproductive rights.
Hobart and William Smith alums are well represented in the senior roles at Planned Parenthood. Joining Subak among those working with the organization are Trustee Susan Lloyd Yolen ’72, who is Vice President for Public Policy and Advocacy in Southern New England, and the Hon. Ludwig Gaines ’88, who serves as the organization’s National Director of African American Leadership and Engagement.