Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
After years of spin and obfuscation, the unexpected firing of Dr. Leana Wen, Planned Parenthood’s CEO, exposed the real mission and priorities of the nation’s largest abortion provider.
Yesterday, a New York Times report on Wen’s ouster offered illuminating details that contradicted Planned Parenthood’s savvy public strategy, which downplayed the issue of abortion activism, and made the provision of “comprehensive health care” to low-income women the focus of its concern.
“The new board leadership has determined that the priority of Planned Parenthood moving forward is to double down on abortion rights advocacy,” Dr. Wen explained in a memo to the staff.
The Times reported that Dr. Wen began to make waves after “she directed her staff to add new pages to the Planned Parenthood website about topics like asthma and the common cold — conditions that its clinics do not typically treat. One of her first major campaigns was simply called, ‘This is health care.’”
She also faced pushback after proposing that affiliates add “additional services such as mental health and substance abuse resources.” Planned Parenthood executives reportedly viewed the introduction of these programs as “mission creep.”
Apparently oblivious to the most urgent priorities of the organization she led, Wen failed to act quickly, as pro-life legislators began to pass bills that sharply restricted abortion rights and stirred debate over late-term abortions.
Wen was a physician, not a seasoned activist like her predecessor Cecile Richards, who went after the Center for Progress like gangbusters after it posted embarrassing videos of staff physicians joking about abortions and harvesting the body parts of aborted fetuses. Check out her video statement here, if you want to see a tough activist doing her job.
Wen appeared to have little in common with Richards. And, as the Times reported, “Planned Parenthood’s leaders felt they needed a more politically invested advocate in the battle over abortion access.”
Why had the organization hired Wen in the first place, if it really wanted a hardcore activist at the helm?
The decision to hire Wen, said the Times, “underscores one of the group’s central tensions: Is it a political organization or a health organization first?”
But while political activists insist that abortion is a mainstream medical service, the Times story makes clear that abortion clinics face unique and nearly constant legal and legislative challenges. As a result, the nation’s largest provider of abortions must be fully engaged in political advocacy or lose the fight for survival.
“Planned Parenthood occupies a unique position as both a health care provider and an advocate, which nobody else needs to do,” Jess McIntosh, “a Democratic strategist who has consulted with reproductive rights groups including NARAL and Emily’s List,” told the Times. “Because they have such an outsized share of market attention, they don’t have the luxury of letting go of the advocacy piece.”
In other words, Planned Parenthood must aggressively defend the bottom line of its 600 “health centers,” even as it issues press releases and files amicus briefs in legal challenges to pro-life legislation that frame such bills as an unjust attack on “health centers” serving the most needy.
But there is more vital information to be mined from the early media coverage of Dr. Wen’s fall.
It’s clear, for example, that her removal is a backhanded compliment to the pro-life movement, which conducted an intensive and effective campaign to expose the gruesome practice of late-term abortion.
“Planned Parenthood was caught off guard and ill prepared to deal with the recent attacks,” reported the Times. “Instead of aggressively refuting the claims that Democrats were legalizing ‘infanticide,’ Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights groups were slow to form a cohesive and effective response.”
Further, even as the Times’ story suggested Wen failed to quickly tackle damaging “misinformation” about late-term abortions, it also makes clear that pro-life activists and media outlets forced the group to take back some of its more questionable “facts” and arguments.
In May, the Washington Post Fact Checker column addressed questions about Wen’s “repeated claim that ‘thousands of women died every year pre-Roe’ from a lack of legal abortion care. The column rated her statement as ‘false,’ something a former employee said she had been told repeatedly by her staff but disregarded.”
Surely Wen can be forgiven for passing along an allegation that remains the abortion movement’s primary argument for upholding Roe v. Wade.
As the Fact Checker noted, by 1972, fewer than one hundred women died from legal and illegal abortions combined.
The Fact Check also dismantled a 2014 statement issued by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG): “It is estimated that before 1973, 1.2 million U.S. women resorted to illegal abortion each year and that unsafe abortions caused as many as 5,000 annual deaths.”
It was clear that Planned Parenthood had been forced to become more responsive to pro-life critics, who had repeatedly challenged the veracity of its public statements.
For example, Wen’s efforts to post more public health information on the organization’s website about conditions that affect low-income communities, like diabetes, were controversial precisely because Planned Parenthood executives feared they would be called out for suggesting their clinics actually treat these conditions.
“Planned Parenthood allies had already come under attack in 2015 for suggesting that the organization provides mammogram screenings, which it does not (the organization refers people to other providers for the service). Staff members worried that Dr. Wen’s request could lead to a similar controversy.”
In an email to the Times, one employee explained that the inclusion of “new pages would be ‘risky for the brand’ because it often ‘gets dinged in the press when we suggest that we provide services we don’t.’”
Yet despite all the damning information revealed in the wake of Wen’s departure, Ms. McGill Johnson, her interim successor, has already returned to the familiar message that Planned Parenthood has spun for decades.
“Our work and our mission isn’t about one person or even one organization,” Johnson wrote on Facebook.
“Our work is about the millions of people who need access to affordable and comprehensive health care.”
The question now is whether the spin will still perform its magic.