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Planned Parenthood, seeking more political tack, removes its president Leana Wen

The sudden ouster reflected a widening disagreement between the president, Leana Wen, and the board of directors over her management style and which direction to steer one of the nation’s leading women’s reproductive rights groups.

By: New York Times | Published: July 17, 2019 7:23:52 am
Planned Parenthood, seeking more political tack, removes its president Leana Wen Dr. Leanna Wen, president of Planned Parenthood, in New York, March 18, 2019. (The New York Times: Erik Tanner)

Written by Shane Goldmacher

Planned Parenthood on Tuesday removed its president after less than a year in the job, seeking new leadership at a time when abortion rights have come under increasing attack from statehouses and Republicans in Washington.

The sudden ouster reflected a widening disagreement between the president, Leana Wen, and the board of directors over her management style and which direction to steer one of the nation’s leading women’s reproductive rights groups.

Her departure followed a series of negotiations that appeared to end acrimoniously Tuesday. In a Twitter post, Wen said her fate had been decided at a “secret meeting,” which the organization disputed. She later issued a statement saying she was “leaving because the new board chairs and I have philosophical differences over the direction and future of Planned Parenthood.”

The urgency of the abortion issue appeared to be at the heart of the disagreement. Wen, the first physician to lead the organization in decades, said that she believed “the best way to protect abortion care is to be clear that it is not a political issue but a health care one, and that we can expand support for reproductive rights.”

But four people familiar with the matter said the group’s board of directors felt it needed a more aggressive political leader to combat the current efforts to roll back access to abortions.

Wen’s brief tenure — she took over in November — coincided with a particularly fraught moment for abortion-rights advocates. In recent months, Republican-controlled statehouses in Ohio, Alabama, Indiana, Louisiana and Missouri have moved decisively to restrict abortion access as they take aim at the protections enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

That has put abortion rights groups, including Planned Parenthood, on the defensive as they battle conservative messaging, much of it ominous, and some of it false, such as claims about infanticide.

And in Washington this week, Planned Parenthood is confronting a new Trump administration rule stating that taxpayer-funded family planning clinics must stop referring women for abortions.

With health centers nationwide, Planned Parenthood receives close to $60 million each year through the federal family planning program, and the new edict is widely seen as being aimed at the organization. The Trump administration won a key victory last week as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit declined to block it from enforcing the rule.

Anti-abortion groups were quick to respond to Wen’s ouster Tuesday. Americans United for Life, a leading anti-abortion legal firm, said in a statement that Wen “has consistently traded on her training as a physician to perpetuate Planned Parenthood’s falsehood that ‘abortion is health care.’ ” It promised to pursue court victories “until we reach a post-Roe v. Wade era.”

The conservative anti-abortion push gained momentum after Brett Kavanaugh replaced Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court, giving conservatives a possible fifth vote to uphold new limits on abortion.

Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, a conservative Christian advocacy group, said: “The problem for Planned Parenthood is not its leadership. The problem is that science and technology have exposed the savagery of the abortion industry. Women know we deserve better.”

Amanda Skinner, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood Southern New England, said the attacks from Republicans represented an “alarming” moment for abortion-rights supporters.

“This is a crisis time in terms of the impact on the patients we serve and the communities we serve,” she said, adding: “I think that Dr. Wen is obviously a very thoughtful leader in health care. I think what is critical for Planned Parenthood is how much we all have to really lean hard to all of the elements of our mission.” (Those elements are health care, education and advocacy.)

Planned Parenthood, a more than 100-year-old organization with 600 affiliated health centers nationwide, has simultaneously served as both a health care provider for millions — it provides cancer screenings, contraception, disease testing and abortion services — as well as one of the leading advocacy organizations for women’s reproductive rights.

The group’s board voted unanimously Tuesday to appoint Alexis McGill Johnson, co-founder of the Perception Institute, an anti-bias research group, to temporarily replace Wen. McGill Johnson will serve as acting president and chief executive of both Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the nonprofit that provide health care services, and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, its political arm.

In a joint statement, Aimee Cunningham and Jennie Rosenthal, the chairwomen of the two Planned Parenthood boards, said, “We thank Dr. Leana Wen for her service to Planned Parenthood in such a pivotal time and extend our best wishes for her continued success.”

A 36-year-old former health commissioner in Baltimore, Wen was among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people earlier this year. She replaced the group’s longtime leader, Cecile Richards, a former Democratic political aide and the daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, who had been a forceful voice on the national stage for women in general and abortion rights in particular.

But inside Planned Parenthood, there had been significant turnover at the top of the organization since Wen’s arrival and disagreements over the group’s direction.

Multiple senior officials at Planned Parenthood have departed since Wen’s appointment, including Dawn Laguens, the former executive vice president; Deirdre Schifeling, the former executive director of the group’s political arm; and Wendi Wallace, the group’s former director of political outreach. A top official, Dana Singiser, was announced as the senior vice president for policy, advocacy and campaigns in January but instead departed the organization months later. Another Planned Parenthood vice president announced taking a new job this week.

Wen arrived last fall at Planned Parenthood with a compelling life story, having grown up poor and on Medicaid in California after her family moved there from China.

“When I was 16 and I wanted information about birth control, Planned Parenthood was the first and only place that I could think of going for my health care and education,” she told The New York Times in May.

She would rise to serve as health commissioner in Baltimore, working to close racial disparities in health care outcomes there as she sued the Trump administration for cutting teen pregnancy funds.

But former Planned Parenthood officials said she was quickly seen as a poor fit as top talent departed. The board and Wen had been discussing her future at the organization for several weeks, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Earlier this month, Wen wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post disclosing her own recent miscarriage and how she was recovering over the Fourth of July weekend.

“I decided to write about my experience because I want to break the silence and shame that often come with pregnancy loss,” she wrote. “I also write because my miscarriage has made my commitment to women’s health even stronger.”

Wen’s replacement, McGill Johnson, has served on Planned Parenthood’s board for nearly a decade, including previously as its chairwoman.

“I am proud to step in to serve as acting president and facilitate a smooth leadership transition in this critical moment for Planned Parenthood and the patients and communities we serve,” McGill Johnson said in a statement. “I thank Dr. Wen for her service and her commitment to patients.”

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