Planned Parenthood’s new president on the importance of abortion rights

The patient had no pulse. Unable to access an abortion at a clinic, she’d asked her cousin to perform one at home. By the time she got to the emergency room, it was too late. Dr. Leana Wen and her team did everything they could to save her, but ultimately, Wen says, the patient died.

This young woman is just one of the patients Wen says she is thinking about as she takes on the presidency of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The first physician to lead the organization in nearly half a century, she told Vox, “I see what happens when women’s health care is singled out, it’s stigmatized, and it’s attacked.”

Wen’s appointment to replace Cecile Richards, who announced in January that she was stepping down after 12 years as Planned Parenthood’s president, comes at a pivotal time for the organization and for reproductive rights in America. As abortion restrictions proliferate at the state level, the Senate is poised to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who could cast the deciding vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. The future of Planned Parenthood, too, is in flux, as state governments and the Trump administration continue their attempts to cut off its funding.

Meanwhile, the group has faced criticism in the past from reproductive justice organizations that say it has co-opted the work of women of color. As president, Wen will have to face attacks from the right and skepticism on the left. But as someone who’s seen the effects of a lack of health care firsthand, she says she’s energized for the work ahead. “Of all times, this is the time for us to fight with everything we have,” she says.

Wen takes over at a time when reproductive rights potentially face serious rollbacks

By the time Wen formally assumes the Planned Parenthood presidency on November 12, Brett Kavanaugh is likely to be serving on the Supreme Court. More than a dozen abortion cases are one step away from the Court right now, and if Kavanaugh is confirmed, the Court could use one of them as an opportunity to revisit Roe v. Wade. Even if one case doesn’t overturn Roe outright, it could end abortion access for millions of people around the country by allowing states to pass their own restrictive laws.

It’s not just Roe that’s at stake. A number of cases involving the contraceptive mandate in Obamacare and Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood are one step away from the Supreme Court as well. A Kavanaugh Court could make it easier for employers to avoid covering birth control, or for states to cut off funds to Planned Parenthood, jeopardizing Americans’ ability to get reproductive health services like STD screenings and breast exams.

“All the evidence points to Kavanaugh, if he’s confirmed, for decades to come worsening the attacks on women’s health and putting people’s lives in jeopardy,” Wen said.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has proposed new rules that would bar Planned Parenthood — and any group that provides abortions — from receiving federal Title X funds, which are aimed at providing family planning services to low-income women and other underserved patients. Forty-one percent of women who get birth control or other family planning services through Title X do so at Planned Parenthood, the group estimates, and as Vox’s Sarah Kliff has noted, “if Planned Parenthood is cut out of the Title X program, there isn’t a backup option. Low-income women who use Title X services at these clinics likely will not have another place to turn for birth control — and unintended pregnancies could rise as a result.”

The current health commissioner for the city of Baltimore and an emergency physician, Wen may be uniquely placed to challenge such policies. “I’m really excited that a medical professional is taking this position,” said Jessica Lee, a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health and an OB-GYN in Baltimore who has worked as a provider for Planned Parenthood in the past. Lee cited Wen’s work on opioid addiction and noted that it was through an initiative spearheaded by Wen that she was able to get a prescription for Naloxone in case she encounters someone who has overdosed. Wen excels at “grassroots efforts to really tackle a problem head on,” Lee said.

Wen’s experiences in the ER have prepared her for her new role, she says. In addition to the woman suffering complications of a home abortion, she remembers a patient who had waited a year to have a lump in her breast examined. “If she had access to care earlier, her cancer could’ve been detected, treated, or it could’ve even been prevented,” Wen said. “Instead, not long after I saw her, she died.”

As Wen puts it, “I come to this as a doctor who sees what’s at stake.”

Planned Parenthood has also faced criticism from progressive groups

Attacks from the Trump administration aren’t the only challenge Wen will face as president. The group has been criticized in the past for ignoring or appropriating the work of activists of color, especially those who focus on reproductive justice, a view of reproductive health that encompasses not just the right to abortion and contraception but the right to affordable access to a full spectrum of health care, including prenatal and fertility treatment, as well as the right to parent children safely.

In 2014, after Planned Parenthood announced that it was moving away from the language of “choice” to describe reproductive rights, a number of activists and groups signed an open letter arguing that Planned Parenthood had failed to acknowledge “the long-term work of scores of reproductive justice organizations, activists, and researchers that have challenged the ‘pro-choice’ label for 20 years.” This failure, the letter stated, “continues the co-optation and erasure of the tremendously hard work done by Indigenous women and women of color (WOC) for decades.”

As Christina Cauterucci notes at Slate, Planned Parenthood has been working ever since to shake a reputation for “claiming the mantle of reproductive justice without crediting those who’d pioneered the framework.”

“Planned Parenthood has worked intentionally to strengthen relationships and to be a responsible partner to reproductive justice organizations and a strong ally to the reproductive justice movement,” said Nia Martin-Robinson, Planned Parenthood’s director of Black outreach and engagement, in a statement to Vox. “The organization — from top to bottom — is committed to furthering that work.”

When Richards, who is white, announced she would step down earlier this year, a number of advocates called on Planned Parenthood to appoint a woman of color as her successor. “To put a woman of color in the top job ― one with a fundamental understanding of how class works in a racialized health care system ― would send a strong signal to current and potential clients of color that the organization can be trusted and that it believes in empowering women who share their experiences,” wrote Loretta Ross, co-founder of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, at HuffPost.

Moreover, she argued, “this moment calls for someone who feels the urgent threat of racism, sexism and income inequality in her very bones.”

Wen’s family left China for the US just before Wen turned 8, according to Kate Zernike at the New York Times, and Wen grew up relying on Medicaid. She, her mother, and her sister have all used Planned Parenthood for health care, she told Vox. “My mother was a patient of Planned Parenthood when we first immigrated to this country,” she said. “When she couldn’t get care anywhere else, Planned Parenthood was there for her.”

“As an Asian American,” said Lee, “I’m especially proud of what she’s achieved so far in her career.”

“I’m very interested in how she brings in minority perspectives,” she added.

As president, Wen said she plans to build on Planned Parenthood’s existing relationships with reproductive justice organizations. And she takes a holistic view of reproductive health.

“It’s not just health care that determines how long someone lives or how well they live,” she said. “It’s also about the other circumstances in people’s lives.”

“At this time, so many of us are suffering together,” she added. “It’s those of us who already bear the brunt of disparities who are suffering even more — it’s women of color, it’s immigrants, it’s LBTQ individuals, it’s working families. All of us must strengthen our partnerships now, and work together and fight together, now more than ever.”

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