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Planned Parenthood leader at center of crucial battles on abortion, race

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Alexis McGill Johnson, the new president of Planned Parenthood, grew up thinking about race — not so much about reproductive rights.

Her parents were heavily involved in the civil rights and Black Power movements, so she grew up in a “very race conscious household,” aware as a child of the inequalities that Black people faced in the 1970s and the centuries before.

In the following decades, however, states began clamping down on abortion access, and the issue for McGill Johnson become intertwined with racial inequalities that persist in 2020, including unequal access to health care, police violence and poorer health outcomes related to COVID-19.

She joined Planned Parenthood’s board of directors in 2011 after seeing a billboard in New York that claimed “the most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.”

“I was so outraged, I was so horrified, in the ways in which Black women’s reproductive choices were being demonized,” she told The Hill in an interview.

“It’s not that I wasn’t familiar broadly at the history of control of Black women’s bodies. It was something that just kind of really shocked me into action,” she said.

McGill Johnson, 48, a researcher and political organizer, lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters, ages 8 and 11.

She was named the permanent president of Planned Parenthood this summer after serving in an acting role for nearly a year.

She took over last year after Planned Parenthood’s board — of which McGill Johnson was a member for nearly 10 years — fired former President Leana Wen over differing views on the future of the organization. 

Her ascent comes during a challenging time for Planned Parenthood and its political arm. Hundreds of Planned Parenthood’s clinics across the country lost millions of dollars in federal family planning dollars under the Trump administration.

A year later, Planned Parenthood had to adjust with the rest of the world to COVID-19, finding new ways to get care to patients seeking birth control, abortions and other reproductive health services. At the same time, it battled efforts by conservative states to restrict abortion access, including during the pandemic when several governors deemed it a “nonessential” procedure that had to be paused during the pandemic to preserve medical supplies.

Clinics across Texas and other states canceled appointments, which likely caused some women to lose access to abortion rights.

McGill Johnson’s friends and colleagues say she is the perfect fit to lead the organization, especially as the nation faces a reckoning over systemic racism.

“She is going to be transformative for where we are at this moment when it comes to reproductive and sexual well-being,” said Joia Crear-Perry, founder and president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative, who first met McGill Johnson as a student at Princeton.

“She has a vantage point around understanding the complexities of people’s lives, as a Black woman, with her own experiences, but also her part of larger movements,” Crear-Perry said.

Patrick Gaspard, president of the Open Society Foundations, first met McGill Johnson in 2004 when she was working with leaders in the hip-hop community to mobilize young urban voters.

“Planned Parenthood is an extraordinary organization, but it’s been through some challenges,” he said, pointing to charges of racism from employees within Planned Parenthood’s clinics and state-level affiliates.

“If you’re going to meet the moment with this point of reckoning in the world [around racism], you need someone who can pick up those values internally as well, and Alexis is someone who can straddle both,” he said.

The organization’s political arm — Planned Parenthood Action Fund — has endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and is preparing for the November elections, planning to highlight President Trump’s response to COVID-19 and his record on abortion and birth control.

“We will certainly be laying out the ineptitudes of this administration in dealing with this crisis,” McGill Johnson said.

She argued that the Trump administration’s poor handling of the pandemic has led to a number of unintended consequences, including increased STD rates and domestic violence cases and more abortion restrictions.

If Biden is elected, Planned Parenthood will push to eliminate the Hyde Amendment, which prevents Medicaid and other federal health programs from paying for abortions. Due to economic inequalities, Black people are disproportionately more likely to be enrolled in Medicaid than white people.

Biden has also committed to reversing the Trump administration’s changes to the Title X family planning program, which prevents abortion providers from participating, even though the funding doesn’t cover the procedure.

“The opportunity exists with a new administration and a new Congress not only restore Title X but also modernize it, and make sure that we are expanding access around contraception and expanding access around sex education,” McGill Johnson said.

“I think there’s opportunity to think a lot bigger than what we had for what is a 50-year-old program, and I think it’s really exciting,” she added.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is “the makeup of the federal judiciary.”

Trump has nominated two Supreme Court justices and hundreds of judges to lower courts, including some who have ruled in favor of state abortion restrictions.

“The makeup of the federal judiciary, including up to the Supreme Court, is incredibly, incredibly concerning,” McGill Johnson said. “Our work continues to be to ensure politically that we are fighting these restrictions in each state, fighting to make sure we are able to obtain a pro-sexual reproductive health majority on the Supreme Court.”

While the Supreme Court in June ruled 5-4 against a Louisiana abortion law that requires doctors performing abortions have admitting privileges at nearby clinics — a requirement abortion rights advocates argue is unnecessary and aimed at shutting down clinics — advocates are worried the court will rule in favor of abortion restrictions in the future.

It recently upheld the Trump administration’s changes to ObamaCare’s contraception mandate allowing employers to opt out of covering birth control for employees if employers have a religious objection to it.

Fifteen other abortion cases are “literally one step” away from potentially being heard at the Supreme Court, McGill Johnson said. “We’ve relied on the courts as our backstop” but that can no longer be counted on, she said.

Planned Parenthood Action Fund has been focusing more on state races, particularly where they think they can flip statehouses and governor’s mansions from red to blue, so abortion restrictions don’t get passed into law in the first place.

“Those are the places where we have to really be laser-focused and targeted and make sure we’re not only kind of defending access as it were but pushing and expanding and innovating,” she said, citing Democratic wins in Virginia and Kentucky as examples.

“A lot of the work that we’ve been doing over the last year has been preparing for what the impact would be if Roe were overturned or gutted measurably, and not just through reelection of this administration, but also through the courts.”

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