The Politics of Planned Parenthood

What Leana Wen’s ouster says about the future of the country’s foremost abortion-rights advocacy group.

Leana Wen in Washington on May 23.
Leana Wen in Washington on May 23. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The Planned Parenthood board of directors ousted President Leana Wen, the first physician to lead the organization in a half-century, during a “secret meeting” this week, according to a tweet Wen posted on Tuesday. Wen, who led the organization for just eight months, claims she was negotiating the terms of her departure with the board when she received news of her abrupt dismissal. According to Wen, her removal was prompted by “philosophical differences over the direction and future of Planned Parenthood.” The internal conversation her ouster has made public—the question of how political a medical provider that’s also the foremost abortion-rights advocacy group in the country should be—is an essential one. It didn’t start with Wen’s hiring, and it won’t end with her departure.

Several recent news reports bear out that there was a significant divide within Planned Parenthood about the group’s tactics and messaging. The New York Times spoke with multiple sources who said some of the nonprofit’s leaders didn’t think Wen’s approach to defending and expanding abortion access was aggressive enough in this moment of unprecedented attacks on reproductive rights. BuzzFeed wrote about a rash of departures in the upper echelon of the organization’s political team and claimed that Wen ignored the expertise of seasoned abortion-rights advocates.

The statement Wen issued on Tuesday implies that others in the organization were more comfortable politicizing abortion access—and less comfortable tailoring Planned Parenthood’s image to appeal to moderates—than she was. “I believe that the best way to protect abortion care is to be clear that it is not a political issue but a health care one,” Wen wrote, “and that we can expand support for reproductive rights by finding common ground with the large majority of Americans who understand reproductive health care as the fundamental health care it is.” BuzzFeed’s sources said Wen would cut the word sexual out of the industry-standard phrase sexual and reproductive health in press releases, and wanted Planned Parenthood to use women in their communications rather than the more trans-inclusive people, lest the organization alienate middle-class Americans.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that Wen shied away from making bold statements about abortion access, though. In a Q&A with the New York Times in November, she said Donald Trump’s now-finalized rule that prevents family-planning clinics that get federal funding—like Planned Parenthood centers—from making abortion referrals was “outrageous and, frankly, racist.” Wen also talked about treating a woman in an emergency room who was “lying in a pool of blood” due to an amateur attempt at an abortion, and who ended up dying due to that botched procedure. This is likely the type of messaging that Planned Parenthood board members wanted when they hired Wen—a personnel decision that appeared at the time to mark a conscious move toward the reframing of abortion as essential health care and away from the highly politicized rhetoric that marked the tenure of Wen’s predecessor, Cecile Richards.

Richards, who has called misogyny an “organizing force” in the Republican Party, was known for turning the GOP’s crusade against Planned Parenthood into a rallying point—and fundraising opportunity—for the organization. She also delivered one of the more memorable turns of phrase of the 2016 Democratic National Convention: “Donald Trump has called women ‘fat pigs’ and ‘dogs.’ … And he says pregnancy is an ‘inconvenience’ for a woman’s employer,” she said. “Donald Trump, come November, women are going to be more than an inconvenience. We’re going to be the reason you’re not elected.”

Wen admitted in the Times Q&A that, as much as she dislikes the politicization of health care, politicization is “unfortunately, the reality that we’re in.” Planned Parenthood, it seems, didn’t fully grasp that by tapping a doctor with progressive chops but no political experience it was getting … a doctor with progressive chops but no political experience. That shift now appears to have been disconcertingly drastic for an organization that had been led by a veteran organizer for the previous 12 years. BuzzFeed reports that Planned Parenthood’s fundraising has also slowed considerably under Wen. It seems that a less political, health care–forward brand—and a leader without Richards’ deep Democratic Rolodex—didn’t capture the enthusiasm of the group’s donor base at a time when extreme abortion bans have won passage in several U.S. states.

When Richards announced her plan to resign and the board began its search for a new leader in January 2018, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was still five months away from announcing his retirement. When Wen’s appointment went public in September—she officially started in November—Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings were still underway. All of which is to say: The political landscape wasn’t trouble-free for abortion rights when Wen was hired, but it wasn’t the hellscape it is today, with five conservatives on the Supreme Court bench and total abortion bans sweeping red and purple states. It’s possible that Planned Parenthood’s leadership thought there was room for a softer hearts-and-minds approach this time last year, but now believes the nation’s largest reproductive rights organization needs more of a political firebrand at the helm.

According to the sources who spoke with Buzzfeed and the Times, there were also management issues that provoked Wen’s firing—specifically her distrust of existing staff and hiring of people who “knew nothing about Planned Parenthood.” Some of these complaints are to be expected in a situation where a young outsider takes over a century-old institution and tries to make her own imprint, as any organization should want a new leader to do. Other gripes might indicate a fundamental mismatch between Wen and the sprawling health-care-slash-advocacy juggernaut she inherited.

In January, Wen objected to a BuzzFeed headline that said she wanted to “focus on nonabortion health care.” “We will never back down from that fight [to expand abortion access],” Wen tweeted in response. Both Wen and the board that ousted her seem plenty committed to that fight. They just couldn’t agree on how to fight it.