It’s been a busy time for Dr. Leana Wen, the new president of Planned Parenthood and the first physician at the helm of the organization in 50 years.
Since she took office seven months ago, more than 300 proposals to restrict abortion access were introduced in states across the U.S. Many states have passed laws to that prohibit abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Missouri almost became the first state to not have a single abortion provider, until a judge stepped in to allow the lone clinic to stay open.
Earlier this year, the federal government also put into place rules that would limit federal funding under the Title X program to organizations that provide abortions or refer patients to abortions. Last week, following a legal challenge, three judges lifted an injunction and allowed the rules to go into effect.
Planned Parenthood, whose mission includes advocating policies that ensure reproductive rights, has been front and center in many of these debates. And with next year’s presidential election on the horizon, the group is also looking to make abortion access a key health care issue in 2020.
This past weekend, STAT caught up with Wen — a former health commissioner for the city of Baltimore, the mother of a 2-year-old, and now arguably one of the most public figures in health care — at the Aspen Ideas: Health conference in Colorado. On the agenda: legislation that could overturn Roe v. Wade as well as what Planned Parenthood is looking for in a nominee for president.
The interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What has been the most surprising thing since you’ve taken over as president?
It truly is shocking to see on the one hand all the great work that we do. And on the other hand, how reproductive health care is siloed, and stigmatized and attacked and treated differently than any other aspect of health care.
I knew this. But I don’t think I quite experienced it until I started. This huge disconnect between what the American people believe and what laws are being passed by the people who represent them. There was just an NPR/PBS poll that showed 77% of people do not want Roe v. Wade overturned. There is no state where the plurality of people want Roe overturned, and yet we’re seeing this unprecedented number of extreme legislation being passed.
Planned Parenthood stands to lose $60 million in federal funds because of the new rules under Title X. How is Planned Parenthood planning on making up the funding?
For us, this is not about funding. This is about the patients who would not be able to get access to care. So, we have set aside emergency funds to use for this purpose and we are continuing to call on our donors to help support us, while we file for emergency relief from the Ninth Circuit.
But this is why we need congressional action here. [Last week], the House passed their appropriations bill that not only protects but expands Title X [funding]. And we now look to the Senate to do the same thing in their bill.
What do you make of these six-week abortion bans happening around the country?
A ban at six weeks means that that’s before many women even know that they’re pregnant — much less have the opportunity to make a decision, make an appointment to travel to that appointment to get medical care. This is nothing more than a blatant attempt to end all abortion access. And, in fact, this is what the individuals introducing these bills have said — that they intend for them to be a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.
What are the chances that that’s going to happen?
All I can say is that there are 14 cases that are one step away [from the U.S. Supreme Court], which is a terrifying thought and that if Roe is overturned, then 25 million women — 1 in 3 women of reproductive age — would be living in states where abortion is outlawed, banned, and criminalized. And the cost is going to be women’s lives.
What are you looking for from 2020 candidates?
We’re looking for anyone who wants to be president to represent the will of the people. My expectation is for all our candidates to affirm that reproductive health care is health care. That abortion is part of the full spectrum of reproductive health care and that health care is a fundamental human right. My expectation is for every candidate to stand strong and speak up against these unconscionable, unethical, and dangerous attacks to women’s health and rights. My expectation is for all the candidates to give their ideas for how they will safeguard Title X, how they will protect and expand access to health care, and safeguard our rights and freedoms for generations to come.
Joe Biden was in hot water recently for iterating his support for the Hyde Amendment, only to then change his stance. What did you make of that?
He listened to the will of the people. The people were very clear in what we want, which is that the Hyde Amendment is discriminatory. It siloes and stigmatizes one aspect of health care, and why should abortion be treated any differently that any other medical procedure? It’s discriminatory against people with low incomes and people of color and it adds one more layer and that’s a barrier to access to health care. And so he listened to the will of the people.
Can you tell me a bit about the research that Planned Parenthood is doing?
We are expanding our public health research, in particular. We do a lot of work when it comes to improving women’s health care before, during and after pregnancy. We’re beginning to do more work in behavioral health with increasing access to mental health care and screening and prevention of substance use.