Planned Parenthood’s board has fired the organization’s president, Leana Wen, after less than a year on the job. According to reports, Wen was dismissed because the board deemed her insufficiently dedicated to expanding Planned Parenthood’s political advocacy, particularly on abortion.
The news comes as a shock for a few reasons. For one thing, Wen was appointed just last fall to replace Cecile Richards, who resigned on good terms after leading the institution for twelve years.
But it’s surprising, too, if Wen’s ouster was due to her reluctance to focus more on politics than on public health, as several reports suggest was the case. In June, after all, Planned Parenthood announced a six-figure ad campaign, “Bans Off My Body,” to oppose recent state laws regulating abortion. Judging from Wen’s Twitter account, she was perfectly comfortable promoting what the group frequently calls “reproductive rights.”
Why, then, was she forced to depart so unceremoniously, and what does her abrupt exit say about the future of Planned Parenthood?
Wen’s dismissal is perhaps best understood in light of the escalating national fight over abortion policy. As blue states have codified the right to abortion on demand, in many cases deeming it a “fundamental right,” red states have passed limitations like heartbeat bills to protect unborn human beings earlier in pregnancy.
Planned Parenthood has long sought to downplay its commitment to abortion, calling itself a health-care organization and spreading the lie that abortion is only 3 percent of its business, even as its clinics perform between one-third and half of all abortions in the U.S. annually. The group’s leadership evidently believes this political moment demands more aggressive advocacy.
And Wen wasn’t up to the task. Considering her record thus far, she was hired for the “M.D.” beside her name, and little else. She came across in interviews like a placid physician repeating rote talking points drilled into her on the drive to the studio. She consistently inserted the phrase “as a doctor” into her messaging to give the organization the gloss of medical legitimacy, and she never sounded like the polished, sure-footed political advocate Richards had.
Plenty of turmoil, meanwhile, was taking place behind the scenes. “Wen had tried to refocus the organization’s mission and image as a health provider offering a wide array of services, including abortions,” sources told the Washington Post this week. “Those close to Wen said she was opposed by some board members and others who wanted to emphasize the organization’s commitment to abortion rights.”
In January, Wen told BuzzFeed News she wanted to restructure the organization’s goals, noting that people aren’t going to Planned Parenthood to make a political statement. “What we will always be here to do is provide abortion access as part of the full spectrum of reproductive health care,” Wen said. “But we also recognize that for so many of our patients we are their only source of health care.”
The day BuzzFeed published its profile, though, Wen backtracked. “I am always happy to do interviews, but these headlines completely misconstrue my vision for Planned Parenthood,” Wen tweeted that morning. “Our core mission is providing, protecting and expanding access to abortion and reproductive health care. We will never back down from that fight.”
Wen’s termination sheds some light on this quick reversal. It’s easy to imagine that she faced internal backlash for appearing to have shied away from abortion advocacy, and that her public about-face was an effort to pacify critics within the organization.
It didn’t work. In February, top political staffers left Planned Parenthood, reportedly amid ongoing conflict over Wen’s management style. Now that tension seems to have boiled over. Six sources told BuzzFeed this week that “significant management issues [were] part of the board’s decision to oust Wen,” and one “said her removal was accelerated by the intensifying battle over abortion rights, saying that she was not the right leader in this climate.”
Perhaps the most revealing detail from Buzzfeed’s report? Two sources said Wen angered staffers by refusing to use “trans-inclusive” language, “for example saying ‘people’ instead of ‘women’ and telling staff that she believed talking about transgender issues would ‘isolate people in the Midwest.’”
This anecdote might well be the key to understanding what happened to Wen and where Planned Parenthood’s leaders intend to go from here. Surely she wasn’t fired for her recalcitrance on preferred pronouns. But with a national spotlight on the abortion debate, Planned Parenthood’s leaders are ready to take off the kid gloves.
Wen’s firing suggests that, instead of claiming to be just a normal health-care organization, Planned Parenthood intends to capitalize on its status as an influential left-wing interest group. To do that, it must become a purveyor of the entire progressive agenda, to the point of embracing the “intersectional” language promoted by transgender activists. So the mild-mannered Wen had to go.
Pro-lifers have long known what Planned Parenthood itself appears to be admitting: The group’s ultimate goal is to wield its political influence within the progressive movement to continue profiting from abortion.