The Ms. Q&A: How Dr. Leana Wen Plans to Take Planned Parenthood Boldly Forward

Dr. Leana Sheryle Wen has an impressive resume.

Wen is an author, advocate and physician. She’s an emergency physician and medical school professor who has instructed students at campuses like George Washington University and Harvard. She was once the president of the American Medical Student Association and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine/Resident and Student Association. She served under two mayors as Baltimore’s city health commissioner. She’s the author of When Doctors Don’t Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests.

And today is her first day as President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Wen is the first Asian American to lead the organization, and the first doctor to take on the post in close to five decades. As she prepared for the “massive undertaking” ahead, she opened up to Ms. about what the organization means to her and the vision that she’s bringing with her to its national headquarters.

You’ve spoken before about how the women in your family all had relationships with Planned Parenthood as an organization. Do you remember the first time you went to a Planned Parenthood clinic? How did those experiences take you from the waiting room to where you are now—from a patient to a supporter, healthcare provider and advocate? 

My mother, sister and I were all patients of Planned Parenthood. When my parents and I first immigrated to the U.S., we had very challenging economic circumstances. We came to this country with less than 40 dollars to our name, we relied on Medicaid and food stamps and even though my parents worked multiple jobs we struggled to make ends meet. During those times, my mother depended on Planned Parenthood for her care because she couldn’t get it anywhere else. I always thought of Planned Parenthood as a place that gave my mother refuge, when nobody else did.

I was also a Planned Parenthood patient. When I was a teenager and wanted to ask questions about birth control, I knew Planned Parenthood would have all the options and information I needed, and I also knew I could go to them for judgment-free education and counseling.

Those experiences were very personal to me, but they’re really the norm. One in five women in America depend on Planned Parenthood for health care at some point in their lives. That’s a big reason why I was drawn to this role as Planned Parenthood’s president. A core principle of public health is to go where the greatest need is, and right now women’s health is the single biggest public health crisis of our time. That’s why it’s critical that we reaffirm that women’s health care is health care, that reproductive health care is health care and that health care is a fundamental human right.

You are the first doctor in nearly 50 years to head Planned Parenthood in its 100-plus-year history. How does that background shape your vision for the organization?

Planned Parenthood was founded by a nurse, who like me was driven to her calling of providing health care. That’s what Planned Parenthood has been doing for more than 100 years, and that’s what I’ve been doing throughout my life.

I’m an emergency physician, and I provide health care on the front lines. I’ve seen what happens when people don’t have access to care. I treated a woman who waited a year before she had a lump in her breast examined. She didn’t have health insurance. She was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. Not long after I saw her, she died, leaving behind three young children. And as the former Health Commissioner for the City of Baltimore, I provided health care services to Baltimore’s most vulnerable residents directly through our clinics while also working to change the broader conditions that impact access to health.

What I’ve learned is that it’s not enough to just provide health care when the right to access that care is threatened every day. That’s why, as a doctor and public health leader, I have been fighting to protect and to expand access wherever I can. For example, in Baltimore, we sued the Trump administration when they attempted to cut our teen pregnancy prevention funds—we won. And critical funding was restored to provide comprehensive reproductive health education again to 20,000 of Baltimore’s young people. We also sued the Trump administration for willfully and intentionally sabotaging the Affordable Care Act. We fought to introduce legislation around the opioid epidemic, and I issued a blanket prescription for the opioid overdose antidote naloxone to every citizen of Baltimore City, helping everyday people save nearly 3,000 lives from opioid overdose.

I have seen what happens when people don’t have access to the care they need. Fighting for that access is what I’ve been doing my entire career. That’s what I’ll bring to in my role as President of Planned Parenthood.

To describe your new role as a “massive undertaking” would be an understatement. What do you think your first day on the job will look like? What are you most excited to dive into, and what direction do you see yourself taking Planned Parenthood?

They say that nothing makes you more certain of your convictions than being a parent. In thinking about this job, I reflected a lot on my son, Eli, who is now 14-months old.

On the one hand, I had a demanding job I loved in Baltimore, serving residents in the city I deeply care about, and coming back to work as a new mom has already been challenging. On the other hand, I thought about what it would mean to come into this role at Planned Parenthood at a time when everything is on the line for women’s health and rights.

I reflected on my obligation to Eli and generations yet to come, and I recognized that we can’t wait. The cavalry isn’t coming. I need to step up and do everything I can to make this a more just, humane world for Eli and all our children. That’s why I’m excited to continue the fight to ensure everyone has access to the fundamental right to health care.

It can’t be a privilege that is available to some—it’s a right that should be available for all.

You’re taking the reigns at Planned Parenthood during an era of unprecedented attacks on women’s rights, and especially women’s reproductive rights—and specifically your own organization’s role in that space. What do you think it will take to keep abortion between a woman and her healthcare provider, and out of the hands of politicians? How is Planned Parenthood bracing itself for the fights ahead?

I’m deeply troubled by how women’s health care specifically is singled out and attacked. Medically, it doesn’t make sense to treat one type of health care differently than any other. Getting medications for your children, having health insurance, preventing breast and cervical cancer shouldn’t be political. These are basic services. And for the nearly 2.5 million patients who seek care from Planned Parenthood every year, they’re not making a political statement when they walk through our doors, they’re there because they need basic medical care. Planned Parenthood and health centers like ours, for so many millions of people across the country, is their primary provider of health care, and defending our patients’ access to life-saving care is the fight of our time.

This is especially true after the recent confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. There is a real and probable chance that in the next year Roe v. Wade could be overturned or further eroded. Right now, there are 15 abortion cases that are one step away from the Supreme Court. At the same time, dozens of states are poised to ban abortion, which will affect 25 million women—one-third of women of reproductive age in this country. That’s why Planned Parenthood, our allies and our supporters must continue standing up to protect, defend and fight for the people we serve. It’s about our health, our rights and our futures.

As you’ve said, taking this job is really leading a movement. Where do you hope to see that movement by the end of your own tenure? What opportunities do you think lie ahead for expanding care, smashing stigma and reshaping the conversation around women’s health?

When I look around the country, I see the huge unmet need in access to care. Maternal mortality in the U.S. has increased over the last 30 years. Women go without primary care and essential services, and have undiagnosed high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer. I also see the integral role that Planned Parenthood plays in communities through the incredible work that we’re doing to care for our patients.

Around the country, through our 600 health centers, we provide essential health care services like cancer screenings, family planning and well-woman exams. We provide the full spectrum of reproductive health services, including birth control and abortion. For many of our patients, we are their only source of health care.

In these challenging times, we do not back down—we must move boldly forward. It’s what we have done for 100 years and we will do so for 100 more. I believe it is our moral imperative to not only continue the services that we already offer but to expand them. Our patients come to us with many health needs. We will be looking to expand our services in providing mental health, addiction treatment, primary care and pre- and post-natal care. We will also aim to expand our reach, including through education and innovative ways to provide care like telemedicine.

While we provide care, we have to fight stigma. I’ve grown increasingly concerned about how reproductive health care, women’s health care is singled out, stigmatized and attacked. Imagine if we asked people whether a vasectomy should be legal and then we restricted access to it—it just wouldn’t happen, and it’s outrageous. The Trump administration is likely about to make final a “gag rule” that would forbid doctors and nurses from telling our patients their options for reproductive health. How much outrage would there be if the government told doctors that they can’t give patients with diabetes information about insulin?

That’s why I’ll continue to emphasize what medicine and science tells us to be true: reproductive health care is health care. By not treating it the same way, we make it harder for people to access the care they need.

We are already paying the price for politicizing it—women’s lives are in danger if they cannot get the care they need. That’s why we will continue fighting with everything we have and will continue to provide quality health care and education to all our patients, no matter what.

ms-headshotLauren Young is a Ms. contributor. She has a Master’s Degree in European and Russian Studies from Yale University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Government and Russian Civilization from Smith College. Follow her on @thatlaurenyoung.

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