Planned Parenthood President Bucks Recent Predecessors, Calls It ‘Stigmatizing’ to Downplay Abortion

‘We are a proud abortion provider,’ Alexis McGill Johnson told The Washington Post.

In this screengrab, Alexis McGill Johnson, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, participates in the ‘Supercharge: Women All In’ event on Sept. 26.
In this screengrab, Alexis McGill Johnson, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, participates in the ‘Supercharge: Women All In’ event on Sept. 26. (photo: Getty Images)

Planned Parenthood has updated their messaging on abortion yet again as president Alexis McGill Johnson told The Washington Post Tuesday that it’s “actually stigmatizing” to say that abortion is a “small part” of what Planned Parenthood does. 

The nation’s largest abortion provider has often touted the widely debunked statistic that abortion is roughly 3% of what the group does, in every recent annual report and whenever it is politically expedient for them to do so. Johnson’s predecessors Dr. Leana Wen and Cecile Richards often employed this talking point that Johnson now views as “stigmatizing.” 

The Washington Post asked Johnson to verify that abortion “is a very small part of all the things Planned Parenthood does, right?” 

“Overall, certainly,” she replied. “But it is still a critically important part of what we do. So I think when we say, ‘It’s a small part of what we do,’ what we’re doing is actually stigmatizing it. Like: It’s really not a big deal that Planned Parenthood does this. We are a proud abortion provider. We believe that abortion is health care, and we believe, fundamentally, that self-determination begins with being able to control your own body and freedom begins with being able to control your own body. So I don’t like to marginalize it in that way.”


Healthcare or Advocacy?

Johnson’s messaging contrasts directly with that of Dr. Leana Wen who served as president of Planned Parenthood for eight months but was forced out from her role in July 2019 because she was perceived as downplaying abortion. Wen cited “philosophical differences about the direction and future of Planned Parenthood” in a statement explaining her departure. She said she came to the organization to “advocate for a broad range of public health policies that affect our patients’ health” but “the new Board leadership has determined that the priority of Planned Parenthood moving forward is to double down on abortion rights advocacy.” 

In an interview with Politico in February 2019, Wen said that “In medical care, we don’t see abortion as one thing, abortion is part of the full spectrum of reproductive healthcare,” and “abortion may be just over 3 percent of the total services that we provide but that is a core part of what we do, that’s healthcare.”

The Washington Post’s fact checkers concluded in 2015 that “the 3 percent figure that Planned Parenthood uses is misleading, comparing abortion services to every other service that it provides. The organization treats each service — pregnancy test, STD test, abortion, birth control — equally. Yet there are obvious difference between a surgical (or even medical) abortion, and offering a urine (or even blood) pregnancy test. These services are not all comparable in how much they cost or how extensive the service or procedure is.” 

“The accurate representation of what we at Planned Parenthood do is reproductive healthcare, abortion is part of reproductive healthcare,” Wen also said. “It’s important for us to contextualize abortion as one of the many aspects of reproductive healthcare which is standard healthcare.”

While Wen attempted to “contextualize” abortion as an aspect of the full spectrum of “reproductive healthcare,” Johnson has declared that “we aren’t shying away from being an abortion provider. Abortion is health care — and fundamentally, freedom begins with being able to control your own body.”


A Changing Narrative

As Johnson pushes forward her unabashed abortion message following Wen’s attempt to treat the procedure as a small part of the group’s healthcare services, Wen’s predecessor Cecile Richards often had messaging that was more in line with Wen than with Johnson.

Richards testified before Congress in 2015 that abortion was “3 percent of all the procedures we provide.” During a January 2017 CNN interview, Richards, when asked by Erin Burnett, would not agree that “Planned Parenthood is core to abortion in America,” she instead replied that “we provide abortion services, but we also provide millions of other services to folks and … yes, we provide abortion, we think it’s important. It’s a legal service that women need access to in this country.” 

Even Johnson has focused exclusively on Planned Parenthood’s other services when it was politically expedient for her to do so. When President Trump instituted his “Protect Life Rule,” which barred Title X funding recipients from referring women for abortion, Johnson accused President Trump of “putting free or low-cost basic care — like birth control, STI treatment and testing, and cancer screenings — out of reach for millions.”

However, the Department of Health and Human Services called out Planned Parenthood for prioritizing abortion over its other services. “To the extent that Planned Parenthood claims that it must make burdensome changes to comply with the Final Rule,” HHS wrote in a fact sheet posted on its website, “it is actually choosing to place a higher priority on the ability to refer for abortion instead of continuing to receive federal funds to provide a broad range of acceptable and effective family-planning methods and services to clients in need of these services.”

The debate over how much to focus on abortion is one leaders of the organization have grappled with in the past. Pamela Maraldo, a nurse, was president of the abortion group for two years and was ousted in 1995 due to her “emphasis on reshaping Planned Parenthood into a broad health organization that could compete in the era of managed care — a focus that some of the group's affiliates felt would inevitably diminish their role as advocates for abortion rights.”

Maraldo told NPR recently “there is an argument to be made that the president of Planned Parenthood has to be strong in the advocacy arena right now,” but “on the other hand, you could argue that, strategically, moving in the direction of broader health care will mitigate against, will, you know, help fight that fight in a much more integrated way, in a way that's much more — that the American people would be receptive to.”

Regardless of how the abortion giant chooses to frame its work, its latest annual report shows that it performed 345,672 abortions in fiscal year 2018-2019, well over half of the abortions in the U.S. reported to the CDC in 2018, while the number of other services the group lists such well-woman exams and birth control provision declined.