Dr. Leana Wen, the new president of Planned Parenthood would like to make one thing clear: She is not backing down from the struggle for abortion rights.
“This is the fight of our time,” Wen said in a recent interview with The Daily Beast. “This is the time to fight with everything we have, because women’s lives are at stake, and we have to emphasize that reproductive health care is a fundamental human right.”
Ever since Wen took the reins at Planned Parenthood two months ago, much has been made about the differences between the 35-year-old and her predecessor, Cecile Richards.
Wen is a doctor and public health advocate, not an activist from a deeply entrenched political family. She has pushed Planned Parenthood to expand its offerings beyond family planning, to mental health and drug addiction counseling. Her first major act as president was to embark on a 20-state listening tour focused on promoting these non-abortion services.
But Wen, the former Baltimore commissioner of health, is adamant that Planned Parenthood is not losing steam on the reproductive rights front. After BuzzFeed News published a profile illustrating some of these differences this week, Wen shot back on Twitter, claiming the headline “completely misconstrue[d] my vision for Planned Parenthood.”
“Our core mission is providing, protecting and expanding access to abortion and reproductive health care,” Wen wrote. “We will never back down from that fight—it’s a fundamental human right and women’s lives are at stake.”
That declaration was a departure from traditional Planned Parenthood talking points, which often downplay the organization’s work on abortion and emphasize its other health services. And it sparked a predictable outcry from conservatives set on painting the organization as obsessed with ending pregnancies.
“Planned Parenthood President Acknowledges The Truth: Abortion Is Indeed Their Core Mission,” blared a headline from The Daily Caller.
“Is abortion Planned Parenthood’s ‘core mission’ or is it just 3 percent of what the group does?” tweeted National Review writer Alexandra DeSanctis. “Their new president can’t seem to make up her mind.”
But Wen seemed not to notice the criticism from the right, or at least not to care. In her interview with The Daily Beast, she doubled down on her commitment to not just providing abortion, but advocating to keep it accessible.
“I know this as a physician, that it's not enough for us to provide health care if people literally cannot get access to that care,” she said. “So serving patients, which is our North Star, must also go hand in hand with fighting restrictions and making sure that we have champions who will protect women's rights and reproductive rights around the country.”
While reproductive rights may be more imperiled than at any other time in recent memory—many members of the Trump administration are hostile to abortion rights, as are the majority of the Supreme Court justices—it is also an exciting time to be Planned Parenthood.
Democrats are the majority in the House of Representatives, meaning there will be no more meaningful threats to defund the organization for at least two years. Twenty-five states now have pro-choice governors in place, and 19 have sympathetic legislatures. For the first time in years, Planned Parenthood can move from solely playing defense to putting some points on the scoreboard.
On a political level, this means helping to advance “proactive” policies like New York’s Reproductive Health Act, or Oregon’s Reproductive Health Equity Act, which codify the protections of Roe v Wade into law. Planned Parenthood is pushing dozens of states to introduce policies like these in 2019, Wen said.
On an organizational level, going on the offense means rolling out new services on top of the reproductive healthcare Planned Parenthood already provides. Wen said she wants to expand mental health options at Planned Parenthood clinics, as well as offering patients help with health insurance and even housing.
“Our work will always center on sexual and reproductive healthcare—that's what we do,” she said. “But we also know that our patients don’t just come to us with one thing. They come to us with many needs, and it's our obligation to meet people where they are.”
But the organization isn’t in a position to completely drop its defenses. While rolling out these new initiatives, Planned Parenthood will also be fighting off targeted, state-based regulations on abortion providers—also known as TRAP laws—as well as attempts to exempt its services from state and federal insurance programs. It will also be battling challenges from the Trump administration, like a proposed change to Title X that would prevent certain clinics from counseling patients on abortion.
All of this will play out against the backdrop of internal struggles. Workers at several Planned Parenthood affiliates have moved to unionize in recent years, causing some to question why the management vigorously opposed them. And last month, The New York Times interviewed multiple former Planned Parenthood employees alleging pregnancy discrimination and complaining about the lack of maternity leave. (Wen said the organization is launching a review of its family leave policy.)
The plans are ambitious—Wen used the word “expand” 16 times in a 30-minute interview—and there are doubts about whether Planned Parenthood can really do it all. But Wen, who has already successfully sued the Trump administration and helped reduce Baltimore’s maternal mortality rate by nearly 40 percent, does not appear to have any doubts.
“That’s what I’ve done throughout my career, these two dual elements: On the one side providing health care, and serving patients directly, and on the other hand, fighting to protect access to that care,” she said.
“Because without that fight, then we’re not safeguarding the fundamental right to healthcare—including safe, legal abortions.”