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The longtime leader of Planned Parenthood says now is the time to step aside. Cecile Richards says it has been a challenging year for the reproductive rights movement. She also says President Trump's election has helped galvanize a new generation of progressive leaders and activists. She will leave Planned Parenthood sometime this year. She spoke today with NPR's Sarah McCammon, who has this look back on Richards' career.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: For more than a decade, Cecile Richards has had a tough job as the most high-profile spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood. She's been called upon to defend the organization's work, which includes providing contraception and health screenings mostly to low-income women and about a third of the nation's abortions.
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CECILE RICHARDS: It's just - it's a shame to think that there are people in this country who are so committed to ending women's access to both birth control and safe and legal abortion that they'll really resort to any means.
MCCAMMON: That's Richards speaking before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in 2015. Her testimony followed the release of secretly recorded sting videos by the anti-abortion rights group The Center for Medical Progress, which accused Planned Parenthood of selling fetal body parts. Richards denied that and said the videos were deliberately misleading.
Not long ago, Richards and other reproductive rights activists had hoped this would be a year of progress for their movement. She spoke in support of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at the party's national convention in 2016, where she celebrated Planned Parenthood's 100th anniversary and heralded the historic election many were predicting.
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RICHARDS: And a century later, an enormous ceiling is coming down.
MCCAMMON: That glass ceiling of course did not fall, and Richards has faced renewed fights as President Trump has nominated socially conservative judges and cabinet members and promoted policies that roll back access to abortion and contraception. Speaking to NPR, Richards said one of her proudest accomplishments has been helping to beat back efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which requires most health plans to cover birth control without a copay.
RICHARDS: Now, of course I know the Trump administration is doing everything they can to erode that. But what I have found is that when you have a benefit like that, women get really mad when people try to take it away.
MCCAMMON: Richards calls this year the most energizing of her career as a groundswell of activists rose up against Trump. Her own activism has made her a hero to progressives and the focus of much criticism from abortion rights opponents. Penny Nance is CEO of the conservative group Concerned Women for America.
PENNY NANCE: I mean, this is a very sad legacy. And I hope that whoever comes after her will reconsider the direction and mission of Planned Parenthood.
MCCAMMON: Richards' former colleague, communications strategist Elizabeth Toledo, was a vice president at Planned Parenthood when Richards joined the organization in 2006 during the George W. Bush administration.
ELIZABETH TOLEDO: The organization at the time - I think they knew that the partisan political attacks were only going to become more fierce. And they recruited someone to lead them through that very difficult time.
MCCAMMON: Even before coming to Planned Parenthood, Richards was no stranger to political activism. She was a top staffer to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and, before that, a grass roots organizer. Richards says she plans to continue to be involved in that kind of work which she learned from her parents, including her late mother, former Texas Governor Ann Richards. And she says she's not ruling out the possibility of running for public office herself someday.
RICHARDS: You really never know what's coming next. And as my mom used to always say, never turn down a new opportunity. So I will - I'll be looking at everything.
MCCAMMON: Cecile Richards says whatever comes next will include organizing for candidates she supports in the 2018 midterms and cheering on a new generation of activists at Planned Parenthood. Sarah McCammon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.