Sex is everywhere, from music to movies to television, yet when it comes to sex education and reproductive health, there is a lack of credible information, says Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood.
“I don’t have to talk about sex for young people to think about it,” Richards told the crowd at Princeton University on Wednesday. “I think of my own kids who grew up watching Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, let’s just go down the list…and yet somehow we don’t want to teach sex education or provide access to good information."
Richards spoke at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to discuss “Keeping Politics out of Women’s Health.”
As the head of Planned Parenthood since 2005, Richards oversees the nearly century-old organization that every year, through its nearly 800 health centers nationwide, provides family planning and reproductive and sexual health care services to nearly three million people, and sex education to more than 1.1 million people.
Planned Parenthood offers screening for breast cancer, cervical cancer and sexually transmitted diseases, along with contraception and prenatal care. The organization also provides abortion services, although Richards said this accounts for less than 10 percent of the organization’s work.
Ninety-nine percent of women use some form of birth control and 98 percent of Catholic women use birth control, Richards said.
Planned Parenthood has been under attack in recent years, most recently when the Susan G. Komen Foundation announced that it would stop funding breast cancer prevention, screenings and education at Planned Parenthood health centers.
Many publicly questioned if it was a political retaliation for Planned Parenthood’s abortion services.
A public outcry ensued and days later Komen later reversed its decision and reinstated funding and tried to reassure the public that its decision was not politically motivated.
"We have been distressed at the presumption that the changes made to our funding criteria were done for political reasons or to specifically penalize Planned Parenthood. They were not," Komen Founder Nancy Brinker wrote in a statement.
Richards only touched on the Komen incident in passing, but she noted Congress has tried to defund Planned Parenthood and a Princeton University student brought up Rush Limbaugh’s recent branding of 30-year-old Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and “prostitute” after she testified before Congress in favor of mandating insurance coverage for contraceptives.
“The single biggest struggle is dealing with the politics of it all,” Richards said. “It’s the barrier that politics are putting ahead on the wellbeing on young people in this country and of women. Every time we take two steps forward, we take another step backwards. Partisan politics rather than public health interests are driving healthcare policy in America.”
And it is partisan politics that she's not sure make sense.
“It’s an obvious point, but you’d think if you really wanted to reduce the need for abortion in this country, wouldn’t you come volunteer at a Planned Parenthood health center because we do more every single day to avoid unintended pregnancy and the need for abortion than all these people carrying these picket and right to life signs,” Richards said.
Richards was born in Waco, Texas (“Someone had to be born there,” she said) and grew up in Dallas. She is the daughter of social activists and her mother, Ann Richards, was the first and and only female, pro-choice governor of Texas.
“Despite all the things we’ve been able to do in this country, I mean we’re at the forefront of so many things—we invented the iPad, which has revolutionized the world—we are one of the most backward countries when it comes to sexual and reproductive healthcare access,” Cecile Richards said.
She said U.S. reproductive health statistics speak for themselves:
- We have the highest rate of unintended pregnancy of any developed country in the western world.
- On average, 730,000 teens get pregnant every year; most are unintended pregnancies.
- Teens between the ages of 15 and 24 account for nearly half of the 19 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases a year. The cases are disproportionately high among teens of color and the poor.
- The cost of unwanted pregnancies to U.S. taxpayers is estimated between $11-$12 billion a year.
The most effective way to combat this problem is with education, Richards said, adding that teens with access to reproductive health information wait longer to have sex for the first time and are more likely to use birth control when they do.
Planned Parenthood now tries to reach teens where they are: on the web, Facebook, Twitter, texting, chat, even advertising on the MTV show “16 and Pregnant.”
While it sometimes feels as though women are being pulled back into the 1950s, Richards is hopeful. After all, she said, it was 96 years ago that Planned Parenthood Founder Margaret Sanger was arrested for distributing pamphlets about birth control.
“This coming year, more than 40 million people will have access to that information,” Richards said. “You’ve got to say that’s a little bit of progress. It’s not everything, but you have to take hope in opportunities for the future... or otherwise you just get too darn discouraged."
The nearest Planned Parenthood clinic to Parsippany is the Planned Parenthood of Northern New Jersey site in Morristown at 196 Speedwell Ave., which, in addition to the aforementioned services, offers men's health services, HIV testing and LGBT services. To contact the office, call 973-539-1364.