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Top 20 US Progressives: Cecile Richards

Leader, Planned Parenthood.

For a woman in the eye of a partisan storm, Cecile Richards is remarkably composed. As president since 2006 of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America - the largest provider of health care for women, in a country where almost half of all pregnancies are unexpected - Richards has increased the reach of the organisation's services (including a Spanish-language website) in the face of opposition. In 2011, the Republican-led Congress used all its political weight to try to withdraw federal funding. Each year, five million American women visit a Planned Parenthood clinic for contraception, STD testing, cancer screening, prenatal services or an abortion; six in ten receive no other medical care all year and 75 per cent are on incomes below $16,500.

Richards began her career in advocacy as a teenager when she assisted her mother (Ann Richards, the second female governor of Texas) in securing the election of Sarah Weddington, a lawyer in the 1973 landmark Roe v Wade abortion case, to the state legislature. After graduating from Brown University and working as a union organiser, she founded the grass-roots Texas Freedom Network, which countered the growing influence of the Christian right, as well as America Votes, a national organisation working to increase voter participation in politics. Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking female politician in US history, celebrated her former deputy chief of staff's dedication to "progressive causes" in a profile of Richards for Time magazine's 2011 list of the world's 100 most influential people.

Conservative hysteria over the public funding of health services (abortion exempted) provided by Planned Parenthood shows no sign of abating. Richards will need to be more tenacious than ever in fighting for women's rights in America this year.

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This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama