Convocation 2019: Cecile Richards address

Cecile Richards speaking at a podium
Cecile Richards

Dean Williams … faculty and staff … beaming family members, partners, and friends … thank you for inviting me to share this joyful occasion with you.

And to the class of 2019: Congratulations!

After many late nights at Puddingstone and the Mission, and way too many meals at the Squealing Pig, you made it!

Looking out at all of you, I see people who have worked incredibly hard and learned a lot. And not just in the classroom.

You’ve learned that if there’s no campus organization dedicated to solving the problem that keeps you up at night, you may just be the one to start it. That it’s always a good idea to make a couple of evergreen protest signs and keep them by the door of your apartment, because you just never know when you might need to march on short notice.

And that there is nothing more exhilarating than surrounding yourself with smart people who care.

Many of you have overcome incredible adversity to even be here today. This class brings enormous diversity into the public health care field at a time when we’ve never needed it more.

You are so talented. You could have done anything with your lives. But you chose the path of most resistance, working in public health.

And we are so grateful you did.

Maybe you didn’t start your career at Harvard thinking you were going to be on the frontlines of defending the value of public health—but in fact that is now your job.

Think of this as the next installment in the Avengers franchise—only you’re the Avengers.

I had a really upbeat set of remarks about the future. I’ll get to that.

But I can’t leave here today without acknowledging the moment we are in.

I spent the last 12 years at Planned Parenthood, and event though we had our ups and downs, like most people working in health care, we operated under the assumption that forward progress is practically inevitable.

We believe that improvements in science, research, and technology will result in ever-expanding access to care, and new ways to help more people live healthier lives.

Though I remember just two years ago, we were simultaneously fighting to keep our doors open due to threats of defunding, while also finishing clinical trials on a new and exciting self-injectable form of birth control that was approved by the FDA and could revolutionize access—and it will! So I am accustomed to the idea that even as we take two steps forward, we often take one step back.

But yesterday, we learned that for the first time since the Roe v. Wade decision 46 years ago, an entire state will no longer have access to safe, legal abortion.

The state of Missouri, which already has abortion restrictions so impossible to comply with that only one health center remains where it is available, is refusing to renew that health center’s license. Meaning that starting this weekend, barring a miracle, legal abortion will no longer be available.

Missouri is a state of more than 1 million women of reproductive age. Let that sink in. And this is 2019.

So today, despite the progress we’ve made, despite the fact that abortion is one of the safest medical procedures in America, the country is about to take an enormous step backwards. Not because of science or medicine—but 100% because of politics.

This is an in-real-time reminder that the biggest hurdles you will face in getting people the care they deserve will have a lot less to do with our public health care system and a lot more to do with our political system.

It’s just not enough to be public health experts. You need to be advocates and you need to be truth-tellers.

Your jobs just got harder, and they just became even more important. You are about to be on the frontlines of moving this country forward toward true health care access and equity.

So as you head off to travel the world … or go back to work in the community you come from … or stay right here and improve public health in Boston … there are three things I believe we need to do.

First, if you want to create change, get comfortable being uncomfortable.

I’m not talking about what happened when we launched the Planned Parenthood Tumblr and had to explain that no, our digital health team could not diagnose STIs based on photographs folks sent in.

I’m talking about standing up for people, even when it is unpopular.

As you may have heard, just two weeks ago 25 legislators in Alabama voted to pass a law that would ban virtually all legal abortions and could put doctors who perform them in jail for life. The one thing these legislators had in common?

None of them will ever be pregnant—they are all men.

That’s what I call legislation without representation.

The legislation was signed into law by the governor and it lit a fire all across America.

People from every walk of life—including every ideology and every political party—spoke out against the law.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The ultimate measure of a person is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

So in the midst of what definitely qualifies as a challenging time, I cheered to see Dean Williams’ pointed op-ed in the Boston Globe.

She underscored the fact that these same lawmakers have also voted against access to birth control and refused to expand Medicaid, which pays for more than half of the births in Alabama—a state that already ranks 50th in the country for infant mortality.

You’d think that would be a true health care crisis to work on.

Dean Williams summed it up perfectly when she wrote: “When women don’t control their own reproduction, they don’t control their own health, their economic prospects, or their ability to reach their full potential.”

And by the way, that goes for all people.

For those who believe in public health, we don’t have the luxury of staying out of politics —so welcome to the fight.

The second thing we need to do is make sure there are people in office who represent the diversity of this country. That’s how public health makes progress.

I learned at Planned Parenthood that if women aren’t at the table, we are on the menu.

A perfect example of this was the Senate hearing back in 2011 when Congress was deciding what would be covered under the Affordable Care Act. A United States senator from Arizona said that he didn’t believe insurance plans needed to cover maternity care, because, “I’m never going to need it.”

I guess he was past his childbearing years.

At which point, Senator Debbie Stabenow from Michigan turned right around and said, “Well, I be your mother did!”

And then there was the hearing when another male senator leaned over to his staffer and asked why was all the funding for cervical cancer only going to women?

You can’t make this stuff up.

That’s why it’s really exciting when you have people who are actually public health experts in office!

I want to tell you about Lauren Underwood, a 32-year-old RN from outside of Chicago.

Last year, she was part of a wave of women and people of color who ran for office. She beat six men in her primary, and defeated an incumbent in November.

In January she became the youngest African American woman ever in Congress.

And this spring, along with Congresswoman Alma Adams, she created the first-ever Black Maternal Health Caucus to help change the appalling statistics when it comes to maternal mortality in America.

She says: “We have to start to tackle this issue, elevate it as a problem that’s worth solving.”

That’s the difference it makes to have someone in office who has actually worked in our public health system making health care policy.

So I hope every one of you is also thinking about running for office!

Third, we need to build movements across race, gender, sexual orientation, income – to fight for true health care equity. That means using our privilege for good—and speaking out when you just might be an unlikely ally.

We are very near losing the right to safe and legal abortion in America. But why is it women who almost exclusively carry this battle? Men have certainly been part of abortion decisions, In fact, most pregnant people got there with a man’s involvement.

So, wouldn’t it be great if male leaders in Public Health Schools joined Dean Williams and write their own op-eds? Because abortion is not a women’s issue—it is a fundamental issue of the right of people to make their own health care decisions—and that affects everyone.

I’m so grateful to Congresswoman Underwood, Senator Kamala Harris, and others who are raising the alarm about the crisis of maternal mortality. But why does it always have to be African America women who raise the alarm?

We all urgently need to take on racism in this country, including and especially in our health care system.

I was encouraged to read that last week in Wisconsin, Milwaukee County declared racism to be a public health crisis as a way to address decades of race-based inequality. County Executive Chris Abele said “Local government needs to take a leadership role and we intend to do so.”

I hope that other elected officials, especially other white elected officials, follow suit.

As for me, since leaving Planned Parenthood I’ve joined with other women across the country to create a new organization—Supermajority—to build the most powerful multiracial, intergenerational movement for gender equity possible.

Building that movement is more than a political goal; it’s a public health imperative.

Here at the Chan School, you know that disempowerment—whether it’s political, economic, or social—has profound consequences for public health.

We know that people who endure racism have higher rates of chronic disease. People who are financially insecure suffer “deaths of despair,” caused by alcohol, drugs, or suicide.

But when people are empowered—when they are trusted and listened to and have the right to make their own decisions about their lives—that can change everything.

It’s time to do more than resist; it’s time to imagine the country we want to live in, and build it.

Imagine our government devoting real resources and funding to solving maternal mortality.

Imagine a Congress that has the courage to address the epidemic of gun violence, undeniably a health crisis in America.

Imagine making communities with clean air and water our priority, from the Bronx to Los Angeles to Flint, Michigan.

Imagine a government that actually cares about families, and recognizes that when immigrant children are dying at the border, that is a national emergency.

Imagine a future where we don’t have to worry that our daughters and our sons would have fewer rights than we do!

Even though it might not seem like it right now, I know we have what it takes to do all of this and more.

Here at the Chan School, you’ve studied incredible public health victories in America, from the near-eradication of polio, to the massive reductions in tobacco use.

Back more than a century ago when Planned Parenthood first opened its doors, birth control was illegal, and the Pill hadn’t even been invented yet. But today birth control is covered under the Affordable Care Act for 62 million people. We are at a 30-year low for unintended pregnancy and a historic low for teen pregnancy in America.

Today, you are joining generations who came before you, who believed that health care isn’t a privilege, it’s a basic human right.

My mom, the late Governor Ann Richards, believed passionately in public service, and she used to say, “You may go somewhere else, and you may make a lot more money, but you will never receive,the kind of gratification that comes from when someone looks you in the eye and says, ‘Thank you for making my life better.’”

Class of 2019, congratulations! You are powerful, compassionate, and ready to take on the world, so let’s go do it!

Photo: Josh Levine