Former Planned Parenthood president Leana Wen discussed the group’s top priority of abortion advocacy in her new book Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health where she details the pressure she faced from the nation’s largest abortion provider to use the word “abortion” in interviews and stick to a focus on abortion. She also wrote about how colleagues at the abortion giant encouraged her to use her own miscarriage as the reason for her decision to step down from the group’s helm rather than her disagreement with Planned Parenthood’s focus on abortion over a broader focus on healthcare.
After focusing more on healthcare services and not mentioning abortion in her first television interview on ABC as president of Planned Parenthood, she wrote that she was told by a staffer that she needed "to talk about abortion at every media interview." As the president of Planned Parenthood, that was expected of her, she says. Wen recalls being told by one colleague, “If we don't talk about abortion openly, loudly, and proudly, as a positive moral good, then we are further stigmatizing it and the people who need it."
Wen is not alone in a reluctance to use the word “abortion” despite her support for it. Despite his aggressively pro-abortion agenda, President Biden has also refrained from using the word “abortion” instead using terms like “reproductive health” and “women’s health.” Abortion groups, including Planned Parenthood, have expressed displeasure with the administration over this reticence. Kelley Robinson, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund told The New York Times in May, “we’re looking for them to be explicit champions for sexual and reproductive health care and to use that bully pulpit to make sure that’s a priority that’s expressed from the highest office in the land.”
Pressure to Focus on Abortion
Wen was the first physician to serve as head of Planned Parenthood. During her eight-month tenure, she often voiced the perspective in public appearances that the abortion group should emphasize a broad range of healthcare services over a singular focus on abortion.
In a February 2019 interview with Politico, she said that “in medical care, we don’t see abortion as one thing, abortion is part of the full spectrum of reproductive healthcare” and “it would not be accurate to say that I am a pro-abortion person. That doesn’t make sense to me, in the same way that you would never call a cardiologist pro-cardiac stenting, pro-cardiac surgery. I am for the full range of healthcare services that a patient needs in their lives.” Wen wrote that she was told by colleagues that this stance seemed like she was trying to "cover up" abortion. She also expressed some openness in her interview with Politico to “engage anyone who stands with us on the importance of getting care to all people” when asked about potentially meeting with pro-lifers. This openness to dialogue with those who disagreed, she wrote shortly after her departure, was “perhaps the greatest area of tension.” In her book, she related being told by her colleagues that acknowledging people’s difficulties with abortion was "dramatic" as it was a “common” and “safe” procedure.
Wen’s ouster was ultimately due to these differences of opinion over messaging. Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, the group wanted to focus on its pro-abortion advocacy and Wen wrote she "was given a choice: change, or leave." In her farewell statement at the time, she wrote that she “came to Planned Parenthood to run a national health care organization and to advocate for the 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.”
Traumatic Handling of Her Miscarriage
She also described in her book how she received suggestions from people within the organization to use her recent miscarriage to explain her departure from the group, something she found “offensive and hurtful on so many levels." The miscarriage was something that "was devastating in a way that I couldn't have anticipated." After a colleague told others about her miscarriage without her consent, she decided to write an op-ed for The Washington Post "so as not to have this deeply personal experience stolen from me," adding that she "could not fathom the additional trauma if this news were made public by others who wished to use it for their own purposes."
“I decided to write about my experience because I want to break the silence and shame that often come with pregnancy loss,” Wen wrote in that column. “I also write because my miscarriage has made my commitment to women’s health even stronger. If we truly care about the health of women, children and families, we must commit to policies that provide pregnant women with the care, humanity and dignity that all people deserve.” The New York Times reported that the op-ed in which she also mentioned “mourning the loss of a potential life” had “surprised and frustrated senior officials and board members, who had not been informed of the article in advance.”