Planned Parenthood on Tuesday removed its president, Dr. Leana Wen, leaving it in search of a leader at a time of unprecedented uncertainty around abortion and other reproductive rights.
Wen tweeted that the decision to remove her came during a secret meeting of the organization’s board, and was due to “philosophical differences over the direction and future of Planned Parenthood.” The organization’s new acting president, Alexis McGill Johnson, thanked Wen in a statement “for her service and her commitment to patients” and said that the organization hoped to have a new permanent president by the end of the year. Meanwhile, a source familiar with the organization said that Wen’s departure had been a long time coming and had more to do with management style than ideological differences.
Still, the news comes after months of rumors that Wen, appointed last year, was trying to take the organization in a less political direction. In February, BuzzFeed News reported that two top political officers had left the group amid concerns that Wen was trying to position Planned Parenthood more as a health care provider than as a political force. And on Tuesday, sources said that “the group felt it needed a more aggressive political leader to fight the efforts to roll back access to abortions,” according to Shane Goldmacher at the New York Times.
“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, 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 that it is,” Wen said in a statement on Tuesday.
Wen’s departure comes at a time when reproductive health providers around the country are facing an uncertain future, with near-total bans on abortion passing at the state level as well as new restrictions on federal family planning funding that are aimed squarely at Planned Parenthood. The new president of the organization, whoever it is, will have to contend with a climate in which abortion rights in general, and Planned Parenthood in particular, are increasingly targets for President Trump and conservative lawmakers.
Wen’s health care-first approach reportedly sparked controversy
Wen became president of the reproductive health and rights organization last November, succeeding Cecile Richards, who had held the post for 12 years. She was initially a popular choice — the first physician to head the organization in decades, she was also a woman of color and an immigrant at a time when many were calling on the organization to appoint a nonwhite leader.
“This moment calls for someone who feels the urgent threat of racism, sexism, and income inequality in her very bones,” Loretta Ross, co-founder of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, wrote at HuffPost in early 2018.
Wen always led with her clinical experience, both as a doctor and as a patient. As BuzzFeed noted, she frequently began public statements with the phrase “as a doctor.” She wrote about being diagnosed with early cervical cancer at the age of 27. Earlier this month, she wrote about a recent miscarriage in the Washington Post, connecting her experience to the passage of recent near-total bans on abortion.
“I pictured myself as a woman having a miscarriage in Alabama, Missouri and Georgia,” she wrote. “Not only have these states passed bans on abortion early in pregnancy, before many women even know that they’re pregnant, but their new laws also would allow the investigation of women who have had miscarriages to determine whether they, in fact, had an abortion.”
But Wen’s health care-first approach concerned some at Planned Parenthood.
According to BuzzFeed, some saw under her leadership “a new vision” for the organization marked by the belief “that if the group is less political, it will present most prominently as a health care provider and minimize its status as a partisan target on the right.”
That was worrisome to some at Planned Parenthood, according to the Times, who felt the organization needed a more political approach in the face of efforts to restrict abortion around the country.
BuzzFeed reported that staffers had received a “182-page handbook on rules and tips for” working with Wen upon her arrival, including “Make sure to frequently look up [from Twitter] and make eye contact with Dr. Wen to see if she is trying to communicate urgent information” and “Dr. Wen ‘learns’ not ‘hears.’”
And on Tuesday, the source familiar with Planned Parenthood told Vox that her departure stemmed from “deep management issues” on her part, including her treatment of staff. The board had organized leadership training for Wen, the source said, but things hadn’t changed.
The source also said that some at Planned Parenthood felt Wen was unwilling to use the word “abortion” — preferring phrases like “abortion care” — which some felt stigmatized the procedure.
A source close to Wen pushed back on allegations of management problems. Wen “had to bring on staff aligned with her vision and who had public health expertise,” the source told Vox. “She made major leadership changes, which were not always popular.”
In a letter to Planned Parenthood staff on her departure, Wen wrote, “I came to Planned Parenthood to run a national health care organization and to advocate for the broad range of public health policies that affect our patients’ health,” including prenatal care, cancer screening, and “the full spectrum of reproductive health care.”
However, she wrote, “the new Board leadership has determined that the priority of Planned Parenthood moving forward is to double down on abortion rights advocacy. With the landscape changing dramatically in the last several months and the right to safe, legal abortion care under attack like never before, I understand the shift in the Board’s prioritization.”
McGill Johnson, the co-founder of the anti-bias organization the Perception Institute, was selected unanimously by the board on Tuesday, according to the Times. She and whoever succeeds her as permanent president will have to contend with the near-total bans, now being challenged in court, as well as the Trump administration’s “domestic gag rule” barring Planned Parenthood and any other organization that performs abortions from receiving federal family planning funds under Title X. Planned Parenthood is fighting that rule in court as well.
Wen said in her statement Tuesday that “I will always stand with Planned Parenthood, as I continue my life’s work and mission of caring for and fighting for women, families, and communities.”