The president of Planned Parenthood was forced out of her job Tuesday in a dispute over her management style and the direction of the nation’s largest women’s reproductive rights organization amid growing political and legal challenges to abortion.
Planned Parenthood’s board met in emergency session for hours Tuesday and approved Leana Wen’s immediate departure just eight months after she took over the post. The terms had been negotiated over several weeks, said a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman.
The ouster occurred at one of the most difficult moments in the group’s history. The organization faces growing financial peril from a Trump administration rule that took effect Monday barring federally funded family planning clinics from providing referrals for abortions. It is also under attack by antiabortion lawmakers at the state and federal level and is threatened by the prospect that the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion could be overturned by the Supreme Court’s new conservative majority.
The board did not address the reasons for Wen’s departure in a public statement. Board chair Aimee Cunningham did not respond to a request for an interview. A person aware of the board’s perspective, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the organization had worked with Wen for six months to correct problems with her management style, which the person said resulted in serious conflicts and difficulty working with staff.
The organization announced the appointment of Alexis McGill Johnson, a former board chair and head of an anti-discrimination organization, as acting president and said the search for a new president would begin early next year.
Wen said in a letter to the organization’s 55 affiliates and senior leadership that she had tried to broaden the organization’s mission to include a wide array of health-care services, including abortions.
“I am leaving the organization sooner than I’d hoped because of philosophical differences about the direction and future of Planned Parenthood,” she wrote in the letter. But “the new board leadership has determined that the priority of Planned Parenthood moving forward is to double down on abortion rights advocacy.”
The person familiar with the board’s position denied the policy disagreements Wen described.
The board’s announcement came a day after the Trump administration implemented a new rule cutting off funding for family planning clinics that offer abortion referrals or services. Planned Parenthood stands to lose about $60 million a year — a blow that could transform the kinds of reproductive services available to poor women and girls across the country. Those services include birth control and screenings for cancer and sexually transmitted diseases.
Abortion is a legal medical procedure, but federal laws prohibit the use of taxpayer funds to pay for it except in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the woman.
The federal government’s $260 million family planning program serves 4 million women. About 40 percent of those patients are seen by Planned Parenthood and its affiliates. Women’s rights groups expressed alarm Tuesday at the impact of immediate enforcement of the rule.
In the first 24 hours, two family planning organizations — Planned Parenthood of Illinois and an unrelated clinic that is Maine’s only grant recipient — announced that they would no longer accept federal funds so they could continue referring patients for abortions.
The most controversial part of the rule — prohibiting providers from offering counseling or referrals for abortion, which critics call a “gag rule” — will be enforced immediately, the Department of Health and Human Services said. Violators could lose federal funds.
“Moving forward with this policy to take away women’s rights before the legal process has played out is reckless and will hurt those whom HHS is supposed to serve,” Michelle Kuppersmith, director of Equity Forward, a watchdog project focused on reproductive health, said in a statement.
Planned Parenthood has been on the political defensive since 2015, when two antiabortion activists, posing as representatives of a biomedical research firm, secretly recorded a video of their conversation with affiliate officials, which included discussion of the organization’s donation of tissue from aborted fetuses for biomedical research.
The activists released a heavily edited version of the video that purported to demonstrate that the organization profits from the tissue — an allegation the group has vehemently denied. The videos spurred conservative groups and lawmakers to redouble their efforts to cut federal and state funding for Planned Parenthood.
Some of those groups reveled in Wen’s ouster. “Planned Parenthood hired a doctor as its CEO and desperately tried for 10 months to pass itself off as a legit health care organization. Americans didn’t buy it!” editors at LifeNews.com, an antiabortion website, tweeted Tuesday afternoon.
Wen was appointed Planned Parenthood’s president last November, succeeding Cecile Richards, the organization’s high-profile president for the previous dozen years.
Trained as an emergency room physician, Wen had been Baltimore’s health commissioner for four years. She used that position to speak out about Trump administration policies that she said hurt women’s reproductive rights. Earlier this month, she wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post disclosing her own recent miscarriage and how that made her a stronger advocate for women’s health. She also was one of the most vocal advocates for treatment and other services for substance abusers.
A Shanghai native, she immigrated to the United States at age 7, living in Utah and California. She started college when she was 13, went to medical school and eventually became a Rhodes Scholar.
Lindsey Bever contributed to this report.