Planned Parenthood will announce Friday that its new permanent president and CEO is Alexis McGill Johnson, the renowned civil rights and social justice activist who’s been acting as interim president since the organization fired its former leader, Leana Wen, in 2019.
The nation’s largest family planning provider was originally going to wait to announce a new president until after the November election, as Johnson had committed to serving temporarily through December. But the organization decided to accelerate its timeline as a show of confidence ahead of the major Supreme Court decision on abortion rights that’s expected to drop Monday. The announcement also comes in the shadow of a piqued election cycle in which debates over reproductive rights figure to play a prominent role.
“We know the year ahead holds more challenges, as we await the June Medical Services v. Russo decision in the Supreme Court, face a long overdue public reckoning with systemic racism, and continue to battle COVID-19,” Johnson said. “Through it all, I have been grateful to the Planned Parenthood family for their dedication to this work. I have learned so much from Planned Parenthood patients, our staff, and our broader movement, and am honored to continue this fight with them, and for them.”
Johnson, who co-founded the Perception Institute to study and combat racial and gender discrimination, will be Planned Parenthood’s second black president—a biographical detail that is notable, in part, because of the watershed moment the nation finds itself in with respect to racial justice.
Planned Parenthood has long battled allegations from Republicans and anti-abortion activists that its foundation was built on latent bigotry, with critics noting that the group’s founder, Margaret Sanger, was a vocal proponent of eugenics. In 2015, two dozen House Republicans campaigned to have Sanger’s bust removed from the National Portrait Gallery, with Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) charging that she “advocated for the extermination of African-Americans.” As an early proponent of birth control, Sanger’s engagement with eugenics was much more complicated than her critics have suggested, and civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., have since praised her work improving access to contraception in black communities.
“There is no one better to lead [Planned Parenthood’s] work to address the systemic racism that stands in the way of true reproductive freedom,” the organization said of Johnson in a statement. “Under her leadership and expertise, Planned Parenthood has publicly committed to reckoning with its history, investing in work aimed at engaging communities of color, and improving Planned Parenthood’s health care delivery.”
Beyond matters of race, Planned Parenthood has faced difficult terrain politically. In 2019, the Trump administration cut the organization out of the Title X federal family planning program because some of its clinics provide abortions. Republican-run states, meanwhile, have continued their crusades to shut down abortion clinics, including those run by Planned Parenthood affiliates.
The group has navigated these waters while dealing with their own internal discord. In July 2019, Planned Parenthood unexpectedly ousted Wen as its president after less than a year on the job. Wen accused the organization of trying to “buy [her] silence” about the conflicts she experienced there.
Johnson, who’d been serving on the board of Planned Parenthood, stepped in as acting CEO as the board embarked on a year-long search for its new permanent president.
“Alexis has steered us through one of the most difficult times in our history with unfailing courage, tenacity, and resolve,” Aimee Cunningham, chair of the board, said Friday. “As a proven trailblazer for reproductive rights and social change, Alexis is the right leader to take us into the next chapter of our history as we fight to create a world where every person is free to control their own body, destiny, and life.”