Dr. Leana Wen’s vision for Planned Parenthood is deceptively simple: “This is Health Care.”
On Thursday, Wen, Planned Parenthood’s new president, announced the organization’s new way forward, affirming an obvious truth that bears repeating: reproductive health care — like contraception, abortion, or comprehensive sex education — is health care, period.
“I’m deeply troubled by how health care — specifically reproductive health care and women’s health care — is singled out and stigmatized and attacked in a way that we would never find acceptable for any other aspect of health,” Wen told ThinkProgress by phone on Wednesday, referring to the new campaign.
“Take the gag rule [a proposed, federal policy prohibiting clinics from providing comprehensive pregnancy options, counseling, or abortion referrals, even at the request of the patient],” Wen said. “How much outrage would there be if this were diabetes care and doctors now can’t tell patients anything about insulin? Right? We just cannot fathom that might happen.”
For Wen, it’s not only dangerous, but impossible to silo reproductive health care. Everyday people cannot compartmentalize their health this way (the morning-after pill and allergy medicine are both over-the-counter, are they not?), so how can policymakers? Indeed, many congressional lawmakers — including those who say they’re pro-choice — view abortion as separate from the rest of health care.
Wen, whose leadership is informed by her experience as an emergency room physician and health commissioner for the city of Baltimore, is a doctor, first and foremost. While the “pro-life” movement views her hiring as a “shell game,” true to form, she views doctors as patient advocates. So, she believes, her role isn’t distinct from Planned Parenthood’s.
“My ability as a doctor is limited unless I can fight for my patients when they are denied the right to their basic services,” she said.
Three weeks on the job and her plan for Planned Parenthood is three-fold: provide, protect, and expand. The organization already serves nearly 2.5 million patients and provides more than 9.5 million reproductive health services, but will expand education, access (through telemedicine), and political activism with an eye toward narrowing health disparities.
“How can we expand our impact to achieve health equity?” she asked.
When Cecile Richards announced she was stepping down as Planned Parenthood’s president in early 2018, prominent voices within the movement called on the reproductive rights giant to replace her with someone who feels the urgent threat of not only sexism, but also racism, xenophobia, and income inequality. The Trump administration constantly attacks Planned Parenthood — aiming to cut funds through Title X or Medicaid — but people of color, low-income people, immigrants, queer people, and/or people with disabilities disproportionately shoulder the cost. Moreover, the injury to these communities is usually, at least twofold, as the administration is also overhauling policies outside of reproductive care — like assaults on LGBTQ rights and immigration restrictions — that affect them as well.
Wen’s priorities for Planned Parenthood reflect her background: she’s a Chinese immigrant who depended on government assistance programs like Medicaid when her family first came to the United States; she’s witnessed people die of preventable diseases as an ER doctor; and she served in local government at a time when federal officials largely ignored a public health crisis when the afflicted were mostly Black.
“Our narrative on choice is incomplete without recognizing choice is predicated on privilege and it’s all of our responsibilities to fight against systemic injustices that have gotten us to where we are,” she told ThinkProgress.
What’s more, she’s not shy about citing her pedigree alongside her struggle.
“Here are a few important statistics that I should mention because I’m a scientist and a doctor and I look at the data,” she said, unflinchingly, when asked how Planned Parenthood plans to take on the anti-abortion movement, which is more emboldened now than ever with the White House’s support. “The support for Roe v. Wade is over 70 percent.”
She is recognized as being the first physician to lead Planned Parenthood in nearly 50 years, but her bedside manner sets her apart from most. Throughout the interview, she referred to Planned Parenthood’s work as a reproductive health and women’s health organization, a nod to trans and non-binary folks who depend on this care as well. She referenced her newborn; she is a working mom and wants you to know it. Oh, and did she mention she sued the Trump administration in 2017 over funding cuts to two Baltimore-based teen pregnancy prevention programs — and won? (She did and is quite proud.)
“I see, as a doctor, what’s at stake and what’s at stake is the lives of my patients,” she said. “That’s why I am here.”