Since taking the helm of Planned Parenthood in November, Dr. Leana Wen has been surprised to hear one question come up again and again: Why is a doctor doing advocacy work?
On some levels, the question makes sense. Wen’s resume, which includes serving as an ER doctor and Baltimore Health Commissioner, is a stark shift from that of her predecessor Cecile Richards, a longtime campaign operative and activist who hailed from one of Texas’ most prominent political families.
But to Wen, advocacy work, especially on policy, is just another aspect of patient care. “In providing healthcare and treating my patients, I see that what's making them sick isn't just a disease,” she says. “I'm treating a patient who's had a stroke and the reason she had a stroke is that she was cutting her blood pressure medications into halves and then into quarters because she couldn't afford them. My job is not only to treat her medical illness she's here with, but to also fight back on these policies that are making her sick.”
It’s that perspective that shapes “This is Health Care,” Wen’s first major initiative as president of the 102-year-old organization. The goal of the newly-launched campaign, Wen says, is to highlight the full spectrum of services Planned Parenthood provides and send the message that those services — including (but not limited to) abortion — should be viewed as basic healthcare.
Wen is taking the reins of Planned Parenthood at a tenuous and high-profile time in the ongoing debate over abortion and other aspects of reproductive healthcare. Many advocates for abortion rights believe a combination of ongoing attempts to curb access at the state level and a conservative shift in the makeup of the Supreme Court have made the future of Roe v. Wade more endangered than ever.
So can her message really penetrate today’s polarized and high-stakes political environment? Wen, who heads both the clinic and the political arms of Planned Parenthood, spoke to Refinery29 about her goals, the challenges of advocating for abortion rights in today’s climate and hopes and fears for 2019.
What are you trying to achieve with this initiative? What are your goals?
“One thing that I want to accomplish as the president of Planned Parenthood is to make clear that reproductive healthcare is healthcare and that healthcare is a human right. There is a problem when we stigmatize, silo out, one aspect of healthcare and treat it differently than everything else. The gag rule that the Trump administration is putting out would force doctors and nurses to censor what we can say to our patients about reproductive health. That would never happen to another type of healthcare. I mean, imagine the outrage if doctors are not allowed to tell our patients with diabetes anything about insulin? And “This Is Health Care” is a new national awareness effort that reinforces my vision for Planned Parenthood that provides accurate information that what we do is standard medical care. Our services include women’s exams, cancer screenings STD tests... Last year, we provided 740,000 HIV tests. All of that is healthcare. We are also proud to provide the full range of reproductive health services, from birth control to safe, legal abortion, which is all part of healthcare and [should] not be controversial. Health care should not be political.”
That core idea might seem like a no-brainer to some [Refinery29 readers]. We’re at this point in 2018 where women’s rights, equality, women running for office, all of this is in the spotlight. Why do you think this idea that women’s healthcare is healthcare is a message that still has to be so loudly and so clearly? Has there been a messaging problem in the past?
“Less than 24 hours after the midterm election, when a record number of women got elected to Congress and where we now have a pro-reproductive health majority in the House, President Trump issued a finalized a rule that would allow employers to deny women birth control coverage. It's 2018 and we're still debating birth control. If we look at the numbers, nine out of 10 women will use birth control and it's something that's wildly popular. It shouldn't be controversial. It shouldn't be political but it still is something that we need to be fighting for. And that's why a campaign like this campaign is so important.”
On birth control or even Planned Parenthood's own standing in public opinion polling, you have high popularity overall, but when you look at the party breakdown, there’s a huge gulf between Democrats and Republicans. We're getting more and more polarized and tribal and how we look at a lot of these issues and politics in our country. How do you how do you navigate that?
“I'm not here as a Democrat or Republican. I'm here as a doctor and everything that I do is to provide access to care for my patients. Healthcare is a winning issue. People want more healthcare and not less. We see solidly red states like Utah, Nebraska and Idaho use ballot initiatives to vote for Medicaid expansion. Over 70% of people in this country regardless of party affiliation support Roe v. Wade as the law of the land. We support the right of women and all people to make the best decisions for our health and do not want politicians in the exam room telling doctors and patients what we should be doing.”
But with Roe v. Wade or even Planned Parenthood, you know those support numbers drop a lot among Republicans, among some of those voters in those red states. How do you cross the aisle and reach those people and change perceptions about Planned Parenthood, especially in such a polarized environment?
“We need to be educating people about the work that we do. Planned Parenthood does more than any other organization to prevent unintended pregnancies. If that's the goal to prevent unintended pregnancies and reduce the need for abortions then we need to be investing in Planned Parenthood. We also need to understand abortion as part of the full spectrum of reproductive healthcare. I've seen my patient make difficult, deeply personal decisions that are medical decisions. Politicians have no role in deciding for a woman about what's best for their health. Abortion needs to be treated as the normal and common experience that it is. Nearly one in four women in America will have an abortion at some point in her life. Every individual person's decision about their health should be respected and valid.”
One issue when it comes to access that has come up but is not discussed as much is training for medical students or doctors to perform abortions. And I was curious to hear your thoughts about the state of affairs on that as a doctor?
“Abortion is a standard legal medical procedure and it is something that should be part of the standard medical training that every single doctor receives. We're not even close to being there. There have been many efforts led by Planned Parenthood and our partners to increase training and that's an aspect that I will absolutely be focusing on in my time here. Because again, we need to be emphasizing that this is a procedure that one in four women in America will have in our lifetime. It's the duty of medical education to provide training so that we can best treat all the patients who need our care.”
Thinking back from a personal standpoint, when you were in medical school did you receive abortion training or do you wish you had? Was that something that was on your mind at the time?
“It was not readily available. It was certainly not a requirement. It was available only as an elective that could be done during certain times of the year for a very limited number of students and unfortunately there was not enough space for me to elect into it. Even in my medical school classes back in 2001, there was a strong desire by medical students to learn but there was not enough training capacity for us. And I see within the next generation of medical students, there is a strong desire, a strong interest so that we can prepare so that we're able to provide the full range of reproductive health services.
Heading into the midterms there was a lot of discussion, particularly within the Democratic Party, about whether there should be a litmus test when it comes to abortion and candidate support. That played out in the Illinois primary, where Planned Parenthood did endorse Marie Newman over Rep. Dan Lipinski. Where do you stand on that issue moving forward? Should support of abortion rights be the litmus test for candidates, especially heading into the presidential race?
“I don't work for the Democratic Party. I'm the president of Planned Parenthood and as the president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund [the group’s political arm], I have a very strong view on this which is that we need champions who are pro-women's health and pro-reproductive health for both parties and actually for all parties. We don't support candidates just because they're one party or another. We support them because of their strong advocacy on behalf of women's health.”
Planned Parenthood was a sponsor of the Women's March on Washington as it was getting off the ground and has been involved in some of the various programming. Especially of late, there's been controversy surrounding their organization and some of the organizers. What is Planned Parenthood’s plan for future involvement? Are you supporting the 2019 march as a sponsor and partner? [Editor's note: This interview—and the question—pre-dates a report in Tablet magazine regarding allegations of anti-Semitism and financial mismanagement at the Women's March. After Refinery29 asked for an update multiple times, Planned Parenthood confirmed that it will be a partner in the upcoming Women's March. Read a fuller report about it here.]
“We are working on it on it with all of our partners and we will have more information for you as as as our as our collaboration and our work goes on.”
So you haven’t signed off either way then for 2019? [Editor's Note: A spokesperson interjected.]
Spokesperson:“I would actually have to check on that. I think there are general discussions among partners happening. I don't want to say anything out of turn because I don't know how they’ve come out.”
Last question. You’re heading into a new year with a new job. What are you most hopeful about and what is keeping you up at night?
“I'm looking forward to realizing [this] vision with our staff with our partners and and and with our supporters. And what keeps me awake at night is this stigmatization of women's health care and reproductive health care. And that's why that's my number one priority.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.