encounter

Cecile Richards Is Working Through It

The former Planned Parenthood chief is still fighting for abortion access — even while living with brain cancer.

Photo: Amanda Demme
Photo: Amanda Demme

Six months ago, on a family vacation in Maine, Cecile Richards, the long-serving president of Planned Parenthood, discovered that her hand had seemingly forgotten how to write. Alarmed, she and her husband, Kirk Adams, drove back to New York and, eventually, went to the ER at NYU. As Richards was getting wheeled into surgery for a brain tumor two days later, her eldest daughter, Lily, an assistant secretary for public affairs at the U.S. Treasury Department, was in labor at another hospital. By the time mother and daughter were each discharged, Richards, 66, had her first grandchild and a diagnosis of glioblastoma: incurable brain cancer for which the median survival rate is 15 months.

“Teddy is getting hair,” she says cheerfully of her grandson when we meet at the Financial District co-working space where she is still strategizing for the abortion “war effort,” as she calls it. Richards is publicly divulging her illness for the first time. She gestures toward her lavender head wrap, which has replaced her signature sideswept, white-blonde pixie cut: “And I’m losing it.”

Always rangy and elegant, she’s a bit thinner now. The Texas drawl is more halting, but thanks to speech therapy and good fortune, Richards has remained remarkably cogent. She tells me she’s learning to write again; she’s still ahead of the baby on that.

It’s the second day of the Arctic blast that broke the city’s two-year snowless streak, and on her way here, Richards found herself stranded at the West 4th Street station. She chose to walk the icy sidewalks south even though, she tells me as we navigate the co-working space’s disorienting glass loop, “what I cannot do is fall.” Only the day before, Richards was getting treatment at Sloan Kettering. Today, she is hard at work on Charley, a bot she co-created that helps abortion seekers get good information on how to safely end their pregnancies. She has lined up three hours of nearly uninterrupted meetings that would leave someone without cancer tired. It’s hard not to feel that Richards isn’t trying to prove something just to her colleagues but also to herself.

“Cecile is a high-expectations, high-performance person,” Adams tells me dryly. “Sometimes in extremes.” Her younger daughter, Hannah, says that before her mother got sick, it wasn’t enough for her to insist the family hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu; they had to go back and do the tougher Salkantay Trail — in a hailstorm.

Running Planned Parenthood for 12 years, growing it by leaps, establishing it as a star in the Democratic Party firmament, staring down House Republicans as they leveled flagrant attacks on the organization — all required stoic endurance. But those days look tame now. Roe fell four years after she left the most prominent job in reproductive rights. The aftermath has surfaced criticism of national pro-choice organizations for being too white and too timid, and of Planned Parenthood in particular for allegedly putting its pragmatic interests ahead of feminist goals. Abortion access has been wiped out in nearly half the country, and GOP officials are foaming at the mouth to prosecute anyone who helps someone get an abortion and forcing women to bleed out in order to get emergency care. Nearly one in five patients is now traveling out of state to get an abortion, and that is the kind who can get out. An untold number are getting pills online, legally and not so legally. And Richards has brain cancer.

All of this means, to Richards, that there’s no time to waste. There’s Charley — whose name is meant to convey a friend of indeterminate gender — which has had 16,000 visits in its first four months. She wants to document what’s happening on the ground in abortion-ban states. She still talks to politicians and activists and organizers and organization presidents. When I ask her why she’s so committed to continuing to work, Richards says, “What was Mom’s line?” Mom being the late Ann Richards, the legendary Texas governor and last Democrat to run the state. “Why should your life only be about you?”

Photo: Amanda Demme/

Richards grew up steeped in liberal activism, the eldest daughter of Ann, then a dazzling, frenetic housewife, and David, a civil-rights lawyer from a prominent local family. In Ann’s memoir, she calls Cecile “a model child. She was the one David and I, in our youthful earnestness, insisted on teaching all the rules. None of this left-alone, freethinking upbringing.” They were both astonished when the child they believed to be a demure conformist was disciplined for wearing a black armband to seventh grade in protest of the Vietnam War. At her graduation from Brown, Richards didn’t walk because she was too busy unfurling a flag demanding the university divest from South Africa. She met Adams in an effort to unionize hotel workers in New Orleans.

When Ann’s political star began to rise in the 1980s, Cecile moved to Texas to help run a long-shot bid for governor. Pregnant with twins, Cecile began her days strapped to a fetal heart monitor and spent the rest driving through the state campaigning, enormous belly behind the wheel. She later worked as a deputy chief of staff for Nancy Pelosi.

This was apt preparation for running Planned Parenthood, which, depending on your view, is either Satan incarnate or a millstone around Democrats’ necks or, for over 2 million people a year, a lifesaving source of affordable or free health care. Richards had her activist bona fides but also the polish and savviness of the insider, the better to woo politicians and donors who help Planned Parenthood become the largest single provider of sexual and reproductive health care, including abortions. Richards took charge in 2006, when the Democratic Party was flirting with selling out abortion rights to try to win back an imagined moderate voter. Her response was to shore up Planned Parenthood’s state-level political organizing. “If I’m asking you to take a hard vote for us in Ohio, we’re going to have people on the ground — troops, voters, volunteers; you’re going to see us in their T-shirts,” she says.

Barack Obama had talked a lot about compromise when it came to abortion, but on contraception he called Richards personally to tell her he’d kept full coverage for birth control in the Affordable Care Act. (This required defying the Catholic bishops and the advice of one Joe Biden.)

Still, the vise was tightening at the state level. Richards was rallying the troops in the Texas capitol when Wendy Davis filibustered a suite of abortion restrictions but couldn’t stop it from taking effect. And Richards had to steer Planned Parenthood through a Project Veritas–style secret-video scandal, featuring ginned-up claims that the organization’s affiliates were selling fetal tissue, and stave off a renewed attempt to defund the organization.

When Donald Trump won in 2016, he rapidly laid the groundwork for Roe’s destruction. Richards, who had zealously campaigned for Hillary Clinton, now faced a personal bind. “I had this great plan that we were going to elect Hillary Clinton president and then I would put a bow on it and be gone,” she tells me. “I had been there ten years, which is a long time and a good time. But then that didn’t happen.” Two years later, she felt it was time.

Richards was difficult to replace. Her successor, Leana Wen, was fired after less than a year. The tenure of Alexis McGill Johnson has been steadier, if less visible, but the collapse of the traditional abortion-law structure has laid bare long-simmering debates.

Among them: how to talk about abortion itself. Some activists had winced when Richards went on television during the defund battle and repeated that abortion comprised only 3 percent of what Planned Parenthood did, which they believed threw abortion patients under the bus and left abortion at the mercy of more impassioned enemies. She did not write about her own abortion until eight years into running Planned Parenthood. “It’s not that I hadn’t told people my story, but yeah — just like a lot of things, I think I didn’t focus on my own story as much,” Richards says now. “And maybe it should have occurred to me before, or I don’t know, but I am sure there is abortion stigma within all of us.” In her memoir, Make Trouble, she says a bit more: It was after she had three children and felt like she could barely make it work as it was. It wasn’t a hard decision; it was the right decision. At a moment when only stories of horrific diagnoses and enormous hardship seem to make the cut, it’s actually refreshing to hear that someone just didn’t want to be pregnant.

Richards thinks about it. “I probably was of the era that people thought, If you didn’t have a dramatic story, then why would you be telling it?

Ten days before the diagnosis — “We call it BT, ‘before tumor,’” says Richards — she and Adams had put their Upper West Side apartment on the market. They’d closed on a pre–Civil War home in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans, where they had met over 40 years ago. “I think I just always imagined we would get back there,” Richards tells me at the airy ground-floor apartment on Central Park West. AT, they hastily yanked the New York place off the market, and she started radiation and chemotherapy. Richards settles her long frame on a red upholstered barrel chair across from her writing partner and close friend, Lauren Peterson. Adams, dapper and with a shock of white hair, has been serving coffee. (He’s still in the labor-union business, now the executive director of the Healthcare Education Project.) Richards has shooed away Ollie, the excitable salt-and-pepper dachshund she adopted, who she’s worried will pee on the floor at the sight of me.

So far, the doctors have been encouraged. “I am sleeping. I’m eating. I’m having fun. I’m working. It’s like Pinocchio — I’m a real boy, and that feels really good,” Richards says. “Because six months ago, I didn’t know that this was possible.” She’s still working through it: Once, she would bake five pies for a 12-person Thanksgiving; now, she’s relearning how to roll out a piecrust. Richards will be visiting her grandson in D.C. that weekend, and soon she and Peterson are heading to Louisiana to work on the documentation project. Adams says they’re talking about the spring and the summer.

And she’s focused on Charley, which she co-founded with former Planned Parenthood chief strategy officer Tom Subak. They had set out to counter what they thought abortion seekers would discover — intentional misinformation — and realized that what they really needed was help with the nuts and bolts of how and where to get an appointment or, increasingly, pills by mail. The next task was building a moat of internet security and privacy that no law-enforcement official could cross. Everyone is gearing up for a possible surge if Florida’s supreme court allows the state to enforce sweeping abortion restrictions; worse, the U.S. Supreme Court is going to hear a case that could limit access to abortion pills.

Richards is still talking to movement leaders on strategy. She’s well aware of the irony that at one time she had to convince Democrats that abortion rights, birth control even, were winning issues. Now, they’ve conceded that mobilization on abortion might save their hides, as it did in the 2022 midterms. Biden has invited Kate Cox, who was denied an abortion in Texas after a fatal fetal diagnosis, to the State of the Union.

Richards thinks Republicans should be asked constantly about the women in ban states who have been forced to bleed out or suffered sepsis because they couldn’t get emergency abortions. “We hear a tragic story, or another woman becomes a plaintiff in Texas, and then we move on. It has got to be repetition every fucking day because there is no answer,” Richards says furiously. “And look at the Republicans. They are running and hiding on this issue.”

A few months after Richards took the Planned Parenthood job, her mother died of cancer. The diagnosis, Richards writes in her memoir, “was the first time Mom acknowledged that there was such a thing as human frailty.” She says, “Vulnerability — that was just not who she wanted to be. And looking back on it, I think it made it so much harder for her because she was lonely at the end.” Richards seems determined to take a different path than her mother, down to sending out an upbeat video to all her friends and colleagues to break the news last summer in which she joked about the “crazy Frankenstein scar” on her head.

The latest treatment is twice-weekly infusions through a clinical trial. “I mean, it’s like, What do I gotta do to stay alive? I’m good with it. It’s totally manageable, but these things are unpredictable. So I feel like it has helped me focus on what I want to do with the time I have. And I’m excited. I’ve been blessed.” She pauses, tries to recapture her poise: “Okay.” She’s choking up. “I have these moments,” she says.

From the couch across from us, Peterson chirps, “We are not going to cry today, everybody!”

We all might cry today, actually. “I’ve been blessed to have always had work that I cared about,” Richards continues. “So many people I’ve worked with and organized, nursing-home workers and hotel workers and janitors, they didn’t have any options. And they worked because they cared about their jobs, but they worked because they had to support a family. But I have been one of the really privileged few that could do what I thought needed doing. And so whatever comes next, I have that.”

Cecile Richards Is Living With Brain Cancer