Abortion is on thin ice in America. Mississippi passed a 15-week abortion ban this March, the strictest in the nation (unless Louisiana succeeds in pushing through its copycat bill). In Indiana, a new law requires doctors to report any abortion complications to the state—including some patient information. And over in Tennessee, they want to build a monument to unborn children. Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood, which has been central to the fight for safe, legal abortion, is losing its leader. After more than a decade at the helm, Cecile Richards is stepping down this week. The organization has yet to name a replacement.
“It’s kind of a best of times and worst of times moment,” executive vice president and chief brand and experience officer Dawn Laguens, 53, tells me in a compact conference room at Planned Parenthood’s New York headquarters, a week before she would unofficially step up to be the face of the 101-year-old organization.
Best, she says, because teen and unintended pregnancies are at some of the lowest rates in history, a result of more widely available contraception under Obamacare; and the abortion rate is down, too. But the Trump administration, building upon decades of conservative politics, could roll back those gains.
“In many places, women are losing care,” says Laguens. “Not just abortion, which [conservatives] do everything they can to make as difficult, as stigmatizing, and as costly as they possibly can, but also losing access to what we know are preventive services that are really important. And so for many women in many states, it’s one of the most difficult times.”
Laguens experienced some of that difficulty first-hand when she had an abortion after an unplanned pregnancy in college. “There was stigma and fear of telling my family, and I remember struggling to figure out how to have the funds to pay for it,” she says. “But I didn’t have laws, like we do today, that make it almost impossible.”
Planned Parenthood is not going softly into this dark night. “We’re going to fight and do everything we can to reverse that course; to change who’s in power between now and 2020,” Laguens says. In the last two months the organization has announced two massive pushes ahead of the upcoming midterm elections: With Planned Parenthood Votes, Planned Parenthood Federation of America (the legal-activism arm of the organization) announced a $20 million offensive in March to support pro-choice candidates and connect with voters online in eight key states. In mid-April it kicked off Win Justice, a $30 million program—as big as anything it took on ahead of the 2016 presidential elections, Laguens says—to mobilize voters in Florida, Michigan, and Nevada specifically.
Together with Center for Community Change Action, Color Of Change, and the Service Employees International Union, they’ll be working to engage people of color and young people—who are more likely to change their views in support of abortion rights than older Americans are, according to new research—and be sure they get to the polls.
“We are paying the price for the elections in 2010; this is their long shadow,” Laguens says. Redistricting and major Republican victories back then ushered in candidates who support the policies that are stripping women of access to care right now. What care women are able to get, says Laguens, “is all dependent on their zip code. That’s not how America’s supposed to be designed. We are really clawing our way back to any kind of democracy that actually reflects the true viewpoints of people in this country.” A majority of Americans, for example, believe in the right to safe, legal abortion.
Laguens has had a good mentor to help her prepare for this big step: She’s an old friend of Cecile Richards’s. When Cecile’s mother Ann Richards ran for governor of Texas more than 25 years ago, Laguens’ wife, Jennifer Treat, was the finance director on the campaign, and the women have been vacation-together close ever since.
“I came into this role because I saw that whole set of forces building, I saw what Cecile was trying to do here,” Laguens says. Now she’s motivated by the recent wave of female candidates running for the first time, the seismic event that has been Me Too, and two million new supporters of Planned Parenthood in the last year, including 350,000 teens. “These are big, big forces that are being unleashed in the culture,” she says. “This is women’s moment.”
The New Orleans native, who’s lived and worked in D.C. for more than a decade, is unwaveringly buttoned up and on-message. But her roots aren’t gone; she still pronounces the word “fair” in a syncopated, Southern-sounding two syllables. (“They used to say abortion should be safe, legal and rare; it needs to be safe, legal, and fair,” she says.) And it’s when she’s talking about her pal Cecile that Laguens really relaxes into her folksy sensibility; she guffaws that her pie crust will never touch that of master-baker Cecile Richards (“She is not patient for change, but she is patient for pies.”).
Something the friends and erstwhile co-workers do share in common is being moms to multiples—Richards has 27-year-old twins, and a 30-year-old daughter, who Laguens says are like big cousins to her 19-year-old triplet daughters. When she first joined Planned Parenthood eight years ago, she says she joked, “I had three pre-teen girls—where else was I going to work?” (Yes, she was constantly bringing condoms home and leaving them around the house; yes, this was embarrassing for the girls.)
“The patriarchy is wobbling.”
It’s easy to see Laguens heading off budget attacks from Mike Pence, or salvaging a soured relationship with the Susan G. Komen foundation (both things she helped accomplish at Planned Parenthood). She honed these leadership and community building skills all the way back at Louisiana State University, as speaker of the student assembly, and then as campaign director for the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, working against David Duke, before running her own firm as a media consultant and strategist. (“All of these ‘isms’ are in the same root,” she says, and she’s always been “feisty” about fighting for justice.) As for those of us attempting to beat back all of the “isms” plaguing us in 2018? She says: Stay focused.
“We kind of get distracted by the Trump administration seeming like a circus or, ‘They can’t get anything done!’” she says. “When it comes to attacking women’s health and reproductive health access, they’re getting a lot done. And in one year, they have been pushing policies the likes of which we’ve never seen before.”
Indeed, the Trump administration came in guns blazing, and circus-like though it may be, it has not let up. For example, in April the administration announced plans to shift sex-ed funding toward abstinence-focused programs, and replaced Obama-era language protecting all FDA-approved methods of birth control with recommendations for “fertility awareness.” (Which only has a real-world efficacy of 76 to 88 percent, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.)
The administration also recently released its first annual report on human rights, which has been scrubbed of any mention of reproductive rights. “The patriarchy is wobbling,” Laguens says. “And a lot of what we’re seeing now is them trying to shove stuff under it to hold it up, whether that’s a literal wall on the border to a legal wall around a woman’s body and access.”
Planned Parenthood has a three-pronged focus for chipping away at these walls: The Action Fund, which handles all the political bad-assery for which Laguens puts on her “organizer hat” is only one part. At its core, Planned Parenthood is a healthcare provider, serving 8,000 people every single day from 56 affiliates in over 600 locations across the country, where it offers cancer screenings, HPV vaccines to girls and boys, and even some specialized gynecological care. This never falters, Laguens says, no matter the political climate. And then there’s education: Planned Parenthood is the largest sex-ed provider in the country, serving 7 million people online per month, and will be doubling down on its digital presence in the near future.
The latter is crucial to how Laguens defines the organization, and it’s always finding the latest tools to keep up with that mission. Right now they’ve got a free period-tracking app with the kind of health advice people in large swaths of the country can no longer access. They rolled out a chat/text service to answer sexual health questions privately, online, which fielded an astounding 22,000 questions in March—more than half from young people of color. And they released a virtual reality film that they believe can change viewers’ hearts and minds about engaging in clinic harassment—and they’ve got survey data to back that up.
Now, they just need a president.
So will that be Dawn Laguens? She’s whip-fast with a no: “Don’t tell anyone, but I already have the best job at Planned Parenthood.”