Abortion Remains ‘Our Core Mission,’ Says Planned Parenthood President

"The last thing I would want is people to get the impression that we are backing off of our core services."

[Photo: Dr. Leana Wen, President of Planned Parenthood, smiles during a conversation about reproductive care and sex education.]
Dr. Leana Wen was appointed as Planned Parenthood Federation of America president in 2018. Planned Parenthood / Youtube

Reproductive rights advocates worry that a recent BuzzFeed headline will obfuscate the direction of Planned Parenthood Federation of America under its new president, Dr. Leana Wen, who on Tuesday reiterated that fighting anti-choice policies would remain a central focus of the health-care organization in 2019.

The BuzzFeed article, published Monday afternoon with the headline “Planned Parenthood’s New President Wants To Focus On Nonabortion Health Care,” suggested Wen and her leadership team would move away from expanding access to abortion care as a central piece of the organization’s mission, by expanding services like mental health counseling, opioid addiction treatment, and diabetes treatment.

Wen, the former Baltimore health commissioner who was appointed as the organization’s president after Cecile Richards stepped down in 2018, emphasized in the article that Planned Parenthood would not shift away from its prominent role in providing reproductive health-care services, including abortion.

“The last thing I would want is people to get the impression that we are backing off of our core services,” Wen told BuzzFeed. “What we will always be here to do is provide abortion access as part of the full spectrum of reproductive health care, it’s who we are. But we also recognize that for so many of our patients we are their only source of health care.”

The BuzzFeed article outlines the ways in which Planned Parenthood will expand its non-abortion health-care offerings—services already available through many affiliates throughout the country. In a series of tweets Tuesday, Wen said headlines like BuzzFeed‘s “completely misconstrue” her vision as leader of Planned Parenthood.

“First, our core mission is providing, protecting and expanding access to abortion and reproductive health care. We will never back down from that fight – it’s a fundamental human right and women’s lives are at stake,” Wen said Tuesday in a tweet.

Recognizing that the organization has become a primary source of health care for many people with low incomes, Wen tweeted, in “no way means we are backing down from fighting for abortion access or from the important political work our advocacy organizations do.”

A reproductive rights advocate (who did not want their name used so as not to affect their relationship with Planned Parenthood) said they “didn’t appreciate the framing” of the BuzzFeed article pitting abortion care against other health-care services. Abortion care is part of the full spectrum of health-care services and community resources required to achieve reproductive justice, as advocates have emphasized amid anti-choice framing that distinguishes abortion care from health care. The advocate was “not impressed by the way BuzzFeed was trying to make this about Wen vs. Richards.”

The BuzzFeed coverage says Wen begins her tenure “at a more peaceful time” for Planned Parenthood, with Democrats in control of the U.S. House of Representatives after the 2018 midterms. Reproductive health advocates who spoke to Rewire.News pointed out that the most pressing threats to abortion care access haven’t come from the federal level—a GOP federal government trifecta couldn’t pass a 20-week abortion ban, for example—but rather from Republican lawmakers in the states.

One advocate said BuzzFeed‘s headline and article implied that abortion access in the United States is “fine, so we’re gonna work on other things now.” It’s a narrative Wen pushed back on in the article, and one that has no basis in reality: Republican-backed laws designed to complicate the opening and operation of abortion clinics have led to states with a single abortion provider, while some of the most radical anti-choice laws to date continue to emerge in GOP-controlled legislatures. There remain state-level Republicans who want to abolish legal abortion entirely.

“It’s not that I don’t trust Dr. Wen, but I would like to make sure she understands the power of her words and the signals that it sends,” the reproductive rights advocate told Rewire.News. “This sort of thing can easily be misconstrued by the media.”

The BuzzFeed article included comments from Tom McClusky, vice president of March for Life, an anti-choice group, who described Planned Parenthood’s selection of Wen as “brilliant.” BuzzFeed also quoted a Democratic campaign consultant, Hank Sheinkopf, who said shifting the organization’s focus toward non-abortion services wouldn’t do much to blunt attacks from anti-choice forces—a point Wen addressed in her Tuesday tweets.

Hilary Levey Friedman, president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women, said Wen discussing Planned Parenthood’s mission beyond abortion services could be key in subverting the popular narrative about the organization pushed by abortion rights foes—that Planned Parenthood has no purpose outside of providing abortions.

But even a sensational or misleading headline on a widely read article, Levey Friedman said, won’t have a long-term effect on how Planned Parenthood is perceived in political circles. “One article or one statement is not going to completely change the narrative around abortion,” she told Rewire.News.