Planned Parenthood President and CEO Leana Wen said she was fired Tuesday, less than one year into her tenure, at what she called a “secret meeting” of the board of directors.
In a statement, Wen said she and the board had “philosophical differences” about the direction and future of the women’s health organization, adding that they were engaged in “good faith negotiations” about her departure when the ouster was announced.
A spokesperson for Planned Parenthood denied that the meeting was secret. A source familiar with the situation said Wen had been in discussions with the board for months and was well aware the meeting was taking place, though she was not permitted to attend.
The organization said in a statement that board member Alexis McGill Johnson will serve as acting president and CEO while the organization conducts a search for a permanent replacement.
“We thank Dr. Leana Wen for her service to Planned Parenthood in such a pivotal time and extend our best wishes for her continued success,” the Planned Parenthood said.
Wen, an emergency physician and former Baltimore commissioner of health, made waves at Planned Parenthood soon after her arrival in November 2018. Unlike former president Cecile Richards, a long-time political organizer and activist, Wen emphasized the importance of healthcare over politics and sought to expand the organization's services outside abortion—a move that caused some to question her commitment to reproductive rights advocacy.
The doctor pushed back on that notion in an interview with The Daily Beast earlier this year, saying that providing abortions and expanding access remained Planned Parenthood's “core mission.” In a series of tweets around the same time, she called the organization's advocacy work “crucial” to delivering on that mission.
The statements did little to quell internal disagreements, according to a letter from Wen to Planned Parenthood leadership that the former CEO tweeted out Tuesday.
“I came to Planned Parenthood to run a national healthcare organization and to advocate for the broad range of public health policies that affect our patients’ health,” Wen wrote. “The new Board leadership has determined that the priority of Planned Parenthood moving forward is to double down on abortion rights advocacy.”
But a source familiar with the situation told The Daily Beast the philosophical differences were only part of the problem. The board had raised concerns with Wen about her leadership style for months, this person said, with few results.
Among other things, the source said Wen seemed distrustful of staff, made inaccurate statements to the press, and shied away from using the word “abortion” or employing trans-inclusive language.
“If this were really about healthcare, she wouldn't be stigmatizing abortion and trans healthcare like she was,” the source said. “The philosophical differences were a small part of it. The management and leadership issues were devastating.”
Wen’s tenure came at a particularly dire moment for reproductive rights. A record number of states passed six-week abortion bans this year, and Alabama voted to ban the procedure almost entirely. Many advocates are also bracing for the possibility that a new Supreme Court majority could overturn Roe v. Wade, the decision that legalized abortion across the country.
Planned Parenthood was especially hard-hit by the announcement of new Title X funding rules that prevent any federally funded clinic from referring patients for abortions. The rules also require such clinics to be physically separate from abortion providers—an added challenge for Planned Parenthood, which often provides abortions and other, federally funded health services in the same location.
The organization has continued to fight these restrictions under Wen's leadership, suing multiple states over their abortion bans and taking the Trump administration to court over its Title X rule. It also staged a national day of action after authorities threatened to close the last abortion clinic in Missouri.
But Wen focused her attention on the health care issue, launching a campaign called “This is Health Care” and working to expand the organization’s mental health and substance abuse recovery services. In the wake of the growing threats against abortion access, she said Tuesday, “I understand the shift in the Board's prioritization.”
Johnson, the acting president, said in a statement Tuesday that she hoped to “facilitate a smooth leadership transition in this critical moment for Planned Parenthood.”
“I thank Dr. Wen for her service and her commitment to patients,” she said. “I look forward to getting to work alongside the incredible team at Planned Parenthood who work every single day to help people access high quality reproductive health care.”