The Slatest

Planned Parenthood’s Next President: An Immigrant Doctor of Color Who Grew Up on Medicaid

Leana Wen, Planned Parenthood’s next president, in a still from their video announcing her hiring.
Leana Wen, Planned Parenthood’s next president, in a video announcing her hiring.
Planned Parenthood/YouTube

Planned Parenthood announced on Wednesday that Leana Wen, Baltimore’s health commissioner and an emergency room physician, will start as its new president in November. She’s the first doctor in 50 years to lead the organization, which comprises both a health care nonprofit and a political advocacy arm.

In both her career and her lived experience, Wen is a near-perfect embodiment of the organization’s core concerns, client base, and trajectory. She and her family left China as political asylees when she was 8—“with $40 to our name,” she says in a Planned Parenthood video released along with the announcement. She grew up in poverty in Compton, California, relying on Medicaid and Planned Parenthood for health care. During medical school, she volunteered at a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis. And as health commissioner of Baltimore, Wen has been credited with reducing the city’s infant mortality rate to new lows and tackling racial disparities in health care systems.

“A core principle in public health is to go where the need is,” Wen said in a statement.
“At this time in our nation’s history, there is one need that rises above all: the need to protect women’s health and the health of the most vulnerable communities.”

Wen’s hiring marks a symbolic departure from the era of Cecile Richards, who helmed the organization for more than a decade. Richards has politics in her blood: She is the daughter of beloved Texas Gov. Ann Richards and worked as Nancy Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff before taking the top slot at Planned Parenthood. Wen, on the other hand, represents the medical side of Planned Parenthood, as a former medical school professor and doctor in the George Washington University Hospital emergency room. The 35-year-old doctor is something of a prodigy, too—she graduated from Cal State University at just 18 years old with a degree in biochemistry.

That’s not to say Wen is unaccustomed to the political battlefield. As Trump has tried to curtail public funding for reproductive health care, she has led a local opposition effort and spoken publicly about the threat the president’s actions pose to women’s lives and livelihoods. This year, Baltimore sued the Trump administration on Wen’s behalf for slashing funding for teen pregnancy prevention efforts; a judge sided with Baltimore and reinstated $5 million in grants to city programs. Wen has also rallied health care practitioners against the administration’s proposed domestic gag rule, which would bar recipients of federal family-planning funding from so much as mentioning abortion.

Wen’s history of political advocacy was surely an important factor in Planned Parenthood’s hiring decision. But her background in clinical medicine and public health may be an even more valuable asset to an organization that is regularly forced to re-justify its essential place in the American health care system. The majority of Americans support Planned Parenthood and its continued public funding through Medicaid reimbursements and Title X, but many still consider it more an arm of the Democratic Party than a network of 600 health care centers that see about 2.5 million patients a year. As the second doctor to head the organization in its century-long existence, Wen will be well-positioned to make the medical case for practices like telemedicine abortions, in which doctors can help far-flung patients navigate medication abortions over videocalls, and against unnecessary regulations that require abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals or retrofit their clinics to meet the standards of surgical centers.

That Planned Parenthood chose as its next leader a young immigrant woman of color who grew up on Medicaid and has worked to combat health inequities is a testament to the organization’s semi-recent rebranding as one committed to not only reproductive choice but reproductive justice, an ethos that prioritizes equal access to care and includes related issues like mass incarceration and poverty. The organization came under fire in 2014 when several reproductive justice advocacy groups accused it of engaging in “the co-optation and erasure” of work done by women of color in the field by claiming the mantle of reproductive justice without crediting those who’d pioneered the framework. It has been working to shake that reputation ever since.

Hiring Wen as the face and agenda-setter of Planned Parenthood may help the organization earn more credibility as a reproductive justice leader. And her willingness to dive headfirst into political conflict bodes well for her capacity to represent the largest, best-known, and most controversial outfit in the movement to preserve American women’s access and right to abortion care. Whether or not Brett Kavanaugh takes the open seat on the Supreme Court, treacherous political waters undoubtedly lie ahead for Planned Parenthood. Wen appears plenty able to steer it.