Cecile Richards gives her talk at the University of Chicago Law School. Credit: Courtesy of the University of Chicago Law School

“I anticipated giving an entirely different lecture today,” Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, told a standing-room-only crowd at the University of Chicago Law School yesterday. “I was hoping to tell you that America was entering a new era of reproductive rights defined by possibility and progress. But the rug was pulled out from underneath us. The future of reproductive rights is more fragile than at any moment in my lifetime.”

Richards tried hard to highlight some good news. As of last month, Planned Parenthood has survived for 100 years. Thanks to its work during the past century, birth control and abortion have become part of the national conversation instead of a shameful subject to be avoided: “Even at this trying time,” Richards said, “reproductive health is no longer in the margins of American politics, but in the mainstream where it should be.” One in five American women (including this one) have visited one of Planned Parenthood’s 650 health centers at some point in their lives, not just for abortions, but for gynecological exams, cancer screenings, birth control, and basic sex education. Unintended pregnancies are at a 30-year low and the rate of teenage pregnancy is the lowest its ever been. And not just Democrats see its value: according to a Politico/Harvard Medical School poll taken in September, 48 percent of people who planned to vote for Trump said they, too, opposed defunding Planned Parenthood.

Still, the future is uncertain. Vice President-elect Mike Pence is, as Richards put it, “obsessed” with ending access to birth control and abortion. It’s likely that portions of the Affordable Care Act, including the measure that provides free birth control to 55 million American women, are in jeopardy. The day after the election, Planned Parenthood received a 900 percent increase in calls from women who wanted to make appointments to have IUDs inserted, just in case their access to other forms of birth control was cut off. In the three weeks since then, the organization has received donations from more than 260,000 people—about a third, Richards noted, in Pence’s name. But Planned Parenthood’s text chatline has exploded with questions, and not just the usual ones like “Do you think I’m pregnant?” (“The answer,” Richards said, “is usually yes.”) There are questions from people about whether they’ll still have birth control, or if abortion will still be legal, and these inquiries are mixed in with worries about discrimination and deportation and the loss of basic human rights.

Richards has faith, however, that whatever happens during the next four years, Planned Parenthood will keep going. “As Tony Kushner said in Angels in America,” she said, “‘the world only spins forward.’ We can’t stop the future from coming.” Her organization plans on continuing to grow and offer its services to as many people as possible, regardless of race or income. It’s already started using technology like teleconferences to reach women in far-flung areas (mostly in Alaska and Montana), and has expanded its range of services to include healthcare for transgender people.

A protester outside the law school
A protester outside the law schoolCredit: Aimee Levitt

It was largely a positive talk to a receptive crowd. (There were three protesters standing outside the law school bearing larger-than-life photos of aborted fetuses with the message, “Cecile Richards: What about his future?”) Richards spoke with passion and energy and skillfully pivoted questions back to her main talking points. She emphasized the necessity of being prepared for a long, hard battle, a battle in which everyone should participate, especially on the local level, where she anticipated it would be easiest to accomplish change. She insisted that healthcare was not, as she put it, a “siloed” issue, but one that intersected with civil and economic rights. She encouraged her audience not to waste time on worrying, but instead get to work.

But the penultimate question gave her pause. “How,” one young woman asked, “can we combat attacks rooted in fear, not facts?” It wasn’t a problem that could be solved by giving money or volunteering; it may, in fact, be one of the reasons for Trump’s victory in the first place. “We’re living in a fact-free zone right now,” Richards said. “This election has been very dispiriting. I don’t know the answer to your question. We have to put our patients at the center of our work and stand up for them and hope that the truth will out, as it usually does.

“Unfortunately,” she finished, “a lot of people will be hurt.”