Planned Parenthood head readies for 2020

Greg Nash

If Donald Trump weren’t president of the United States, Dr. Leana Wen might not be the head of Planned Parenthood.

Wen, 36, almost didn’t return the call when Planned Parenthood’s search committee approached her about potentially replacing departing President Cecile Richards. She was a new mom serving as Baltimore’s health commissioner, considered by some one of the best public health advocates in the U.S.

{mosads}But Trump had, at this point, been president for about a year and a half, and his approach to health care was a complete departure from Wen’s.

His administration had worked tirelessly to repeal ObamaCare and end the Medicaid expansion, which extended health care to millions of people. It was also looking for ways to cut funding to Planned Parenthood while ending grants to groups working to reduce teen pregnancy rates.

It was in this environment that Wen gave a commencement speech urging public health graduates at Johns Hopkins to “stand up and speak up” against such policies.

So when she was approached by Planned Parenthood, Wen felt called upon to follow her own counsel and do everything she could to fight back.

“I thought a lot about if that’s the advice that I’m giving others, then how can I at this juncture in history not be doing everything that I can?” she said in an interview with The Hill last week.

Seven months into the job, she faces a whole new slate of challenges as the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and its political arm, Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

{mossecondads}Planned Parenthood has been in almost constant litigation against the Trump administration, seeking to block some its top policy priorities. One of its greatest threats is a rule that would essentially block Planned Parenthood and other health clinics that provide abortions from receiving federal grants for providing family planning services to low-income women.

It would also block grantees from referring women for abortions or counseling them on abortion as an option, described as a “gag rule” by opponents.

Planned Parenthood and the American Medical Association are suing against the rule and have won a preliminary injunction.

Planned Parenthood is also fighting back against a slate of abortion restrictions passed this year in states including Alabama and Georgia while working to keep open its Missouri clinic, the only one in the state that provides abortions.

And looming over all of this is abortion rights advocates’ biggest fear, that the Supreme Court, with two Trump nominees, might weaken or overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that established a woman’s right to an abortion.

“We are in a public health crisis for reproductive health, and for women’s health care across the country, at the time that I was taking on this role, but even more so now,” Wen said.

She isn’t a stranger to adversity. She and her family fled China and were granted political asylum in the U.S. following the Tiananmen Square massacre, which passed its 20th anniversary earlier this month. Her father was a political dissident who had been jailed in China for speaking out against the government, and her grandparents were political activists, too.

“I come from a family that has a tradition of saying we cannot sit back and watch things happen to us,” Wen told Baltimore Magazine in 2016.

But her family was greeted with challenges in the U.S. She grew up poor in Compton, Calif., and East Los Angeles, her family relying on food stamps and Medicaid. Wen says she, her sister and mother were all patients at Planned Parenthood.

But it was the harrowing experience of watching a little boy die of an asthma attack when Wen was 10 that made her want to become a doctor.

“I was one of those annoying people in medical school, when they asked how long have you known you wanted to be a doctor, and my answer was, ‘I’ve always wanted to be a doctor,’ ” she said.

She skipped high school and started college at 13, graduated at 18, and received her medical degree at Washington University in St. Louis. She was a clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School and a Rhodes scholar who studied economic and social history and modern Chinese studies at the University of Oxford.

While working as an emergency room doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital, she treated victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. And in 2017, as Baltimore was in the throes of an opioid epidemic, she signed a standing order making an overdose antidote available at all pharmacies in the city without a prescription.

Wen still works at an urgent care clinic, but at much reduced hours because of her new job.

“Continuing to practice medicine clinically is an important part of my identity and my work, and it continues to inform my work as the president of Planned Parenthood,” she said.

Throughout her career, a common thread in her work has been addressing the racial disparities in the health care system. Wen considers racism to be a health care crisis, one that she attacked head-on while serving as Baltimore’s health commissioner. She has been widely praised for her work in reducing infant mortality rates, an issue more likely to be faced by black mothers.

Just months after she became Baltimore’s health commissioner, the city broke out in riots following the death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man who died in the back of a police van in 2015. When more than a dozen pharmacies closed due to the riots, Wen set up a service that delivered prescription drugs to hundreds of residents.

Wen, the first doctor to head Planned Parenthood in more than 50 years, has leaned into her background as she seeks to accomplish one of her major goals: destigmatizing abortion.

Over the years, Planned Parenthood has defended itself by stating that abortions are a small part of what it does. But with the group facing ongoing attacks from the president and lawmakers in Congress and the states, it has made a conscious effort to emphasize abortion as a key health care service.

“Abortion is health care” is a phrase Wen can be heard repeating on Twitter, in television interviews, at rallies and speaking engagements on Capitol Hill.

“Our core mission is providing, protecting and expanding access to abortion and reproductive health care,” she tweeted in January. “We will never back down from that fight — it’s a fundamental human right and women’s lives are at stake.”

Her comments were seized on by anti-abortion advocates and groups who have for years accused Planned Parenthood of understating its abortion services. 

But she thinks her side is winning.

“We are standing on the right side of history here,” she said.

Democrats think the rash of abortion restrictions passed in state legislatures — and recent actions by the Trump administration — have shored up support for abortion access and will play a big role in the 2020 elections.

Already, every Democrat running for president has came out against the Hyde Amendment, a ban on federal funding for abortions. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading most polls of the Democratic primary, faced withering criticism earlier this month for reiterating his 40-year support for the Hyde Amendment before later reversing his opinion amid blowback from Democrats and abortion rights activists, including Wen.

“We’ll be mobilizing and organizing all the way up and through 2020 to show who is there to stand up for women, who is there to stand up for our health and our rights,” she said.

Tags 2020 2020 campaign 2020 election Abortion Abortion debate abortion rights Donald Trump Joe Biden Leana Wen Planned Parenthood

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