Planned Parenthood’s new president, Leana Wen, is gearing up for the battle of her life. With the Trump administration expected to announce its final plan for the $260 million in Title X family-planning funding any day, the organization is likely to take a huge hit. But Wen said the fight is far from over.
Under the proposal announced in May, clinics that provide abortion services or referrals alongside family planning — such as Planned Parenthood — would be barred from receiving any money. Health centers are allowed to use nonfederal funds for abortions, but the new rule would require a “bright line” of physical and financial separation. Planned Parenthood serves about 41 percent of Title X patients and receives about $60 million from the program to provide basic services such as cancer screenings, birth control, screenings for sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy tests and well-woman exams.
The administration’s move was hailed as a victory for conservative activists who helped elect President Trump but has drawn sharp rebuke from those who support abortion rights, including governors from Hawaii, Washington and Oregon, and professional medical societies. They have objected most strongly to what they call a “gag provision” that would prevent physicians, nurses and other care workers from making referrals to abortion providers. The controversy played out on the Department of Health and Human Services site during the 60-day public comment period, which closed July 31 — drawing an eye-popping 200,000 entries.
In an interview last week, Wen said such changes “would compromise our ethical obligations” and vowed to use every measure available to delay the changes or to get the courts or Congress to reverse them. She said abortion services are part of the full spectrum of reproductive care and not being able to discuss the procedure or refer patients to providers is not an option.
“I want people to think about what if this were any other aspect of medical care. Imagine if the Trump administration prevented people with diabetes from talking to their doctors about insulin,” she said.
“Whatever decisions are coming up have nothing to do with medicine and everything to do with politics,” she added.
Wen — a physician and former Baltimore city health commissioner who took the helm of Planned Parenthood in November — is leading what many people see as the country’s most important organization standing up to the Trump administration in the area of reproductive rights.
She has big shoes to fill. Her predecessor, Cecile Richards — daughter of former Texas governor Ann Richards who served as deputy chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — is legendary and grew the organization into the powerhouse it is today. In 2011, Planned Parenthood raised about $73 million from private donors. By 2017, that number had grown to almost $533 million. In that same period, Planned Parenthood’s count of “supporters,” people who contribute, volunteer or otherwise support their work, grew from about 3 million to 10 million. Cecile Richards has been named among Time magazine’s most influential people in the world.
Wen, a Rhodes scholar who began college at age 13, has emphasized her humble roots. The daughter of a political dissident from China who was granted asylum in the United States, she grew up very poor in Compton and East Los Angeles, Calif. Her parents began their life here by working odd jobs: Her mother cleaned hotel rooms, and her father washed dishes. Wen has talked about how she had health problems growing up and how she, her mother and grandmother were all clients of Planned Parenthood.
Wen said that one of the things that keep her up at night is the discriminatory nature of the proposed rule. The program serves mostly disadvantaged, minority women.
“They are trying to prevent people who already have the greatest barrier” from accessing comprehensive health care, she said. Under the proposed rules, women would be “forced to receive inaccurate information from their doctor, and it’s horrifying.”