The most significant moment for Planned Parenthood this year was the firing of president Dr. Leana Wen in July — just eight months after she started in the role.
From the beginning of her time with Planned Parenthood, Wen’s rhetoric outlined a different vision for the group, focused on health care that includes but does not emphasize abortion — an attempted shift in both rhetoric and in operational policy that was repudiated publicly by her forced departure.
She was forced to clarify in January that the group’s “core mission” is abortion after Buzzfeed featured an interview in which she discussed expanding the group’s focus to include “nonabortion health care,” including treatment for issues ranging from diet to depression to addiction.
Wen continued to struggle with messaging, however, and in an interview with Politico’s Dan Diamond, she went so far as to say she was not 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,” she explained. “I am for the full range of health-care services that a patient needs in their lives.”
“But as Planned Parenthood’s leader, aren’t you the most prominent leader in the abortion-rights fight?” Diamond asked.
“You’re out there fighting for access to abortion, among other things?”
“Absolutely, and I think that’s the right terminology: that we are pro-abortion access; we are pro-reproductive health care,” she replied. “We are pro the full range of services for women’s health and for all people.”
Ultimately, her departure was due to “philosophical differences” over her vision for the organization. She explained in a farewell message to her colleagues 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.”
“The new board leadership has determined that the priority of Planned Parenthood moving forward is to double down on abortion-rights advocacy,” she said.
With Wen’s ouster, Planned Parenthood demonstrated that, despite its oft-repeated but widely debunked statistic that abortion is “just 3%” of what it does, abortion and abortion advocacy are the group’s purpose.
Along with a coalition of other pro-abortion groups, in July Planned Parenthood released a vision for the future that advocated for an end to the current restrictions on taxpayer-funded abortion, the removal of existing conscience protections for health-care providers who don’t wish to participate in abortions, and the passage of the “Women’s Health Protection Act,” which would end virtually all state limits on abortions.
Loss of Title X Funding
In addition to firing Wen this summer, Planned Parenthood lost $60 million in federal Title X funding in August, when it refused to comply with the Trump administration’s “Protect Life Rule,” calling the rule a “gag on health-care providers” because it barred Title X funding recipients from referring women for abortion.
The rule also blocked participating organizations from being in the same location as abortion facilities and required financial separation of government-funded programs from abortion programs.
While Planned Parenthood’s acting head, Alexis McGill Johnson, called the rule “a blatant assault on our health and rights,” the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) responded by asserting that the group was prioritizing abortion over broader health care.
“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.”
Planned Parenthood also has been involved in lawsuits in many states this year after “heartbeat” bills, which ban abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat at roughly six weeks of pregnancy, were passed in Ohio and Georgia. The abortion group filed a lawsuit in May against a law that effectively bans all abortions in Alabama.
Some of these states are more hopeful in light of the makeup of the Supreme Court, with the addition of Trump-appointed Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.
While the Supreme Court has largely avoided the abortion issue this year, Planned Parenthood is also concerned for the future of the court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions that legalized abortion nationally, and at the beginning of this year, abortion-rights supporters pushed to enshrine abortion — even up to birth — in states like New York and Illinois.
The One World Trade Center was lit up pink in New York in January to celebrate the “Reproductive Health Act” becoming law.
The measure allows abortion at “any time” to protect “a patient’s life or health” and removes criminal penalties for abortion. Planned Parenthood Action celebrated, hoping that other states would “follow New York’s lead.”
In May, Illinois passed a similarly extreme law that lifted a ban on partial-birth abortion, removed regulations for abortion businesses, and prevented any further state regulation of abortion. In October, Planned Parenthood announced a new “megaclinic” in Illinois, with the ability to see 11,000 patients a year. The abortion group had quietly used a shell company, starting in August 2018, to construct the facility, as the last abortion business in neighboring Missouri struggles to stay open due to a licensing battle with the state’s health department.
While fighting for unrestricted abortion access in the states, Planned Parenthood also performed damage control after Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam appeared to defend leaving a baby born alive after abortion to die.
Northam, who is a pediatrician, said in a January interview about third-trimester abortions, “So in this particular example, if a mother’s in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable; the infant would be resuscitated, if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”
A Freedom of Information Act request from Judicial Watch uncovered documents in October showing that Northam received some “topline messages” from Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia (PPAV) representative Missy Wesolowski, who emailed them to Virginia’s deputy secretary of Health and Human Services, Gena Berger.
The message included such talking points as “there is no such thing as abortion up until birth” and that “doctors and patients must have the ability to make the best health-care decisions for the patient in the privacy of the exam room.”
Northam’s January remarks led to a renewed push in Congress for the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which would strengthen legal protections for babies born alive after an abortion attempt.
In response to this, then-Planned Parenthood head Wen claimed in February that “this legislation is based on lies and a misinformation campaign, aimed at shaming women and criminalizing doctors for a practice that doesn’t exist in medicine or reality.”
However, Planned Parenthood lobbyist Alisa LaPolt Snow gave a description similar to Northam’s comments in a 2013 testimony before Congress describing the group’s stance when such a situation arises. When asked, “If a baby is born on a table as a result of a botched abortion, what would Planned Parenthood want to have happen to that child that is struggling for life?” she replied, “We believe that any decision that’s made should be left up to the woman, her family and the physician.”
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) demonstrate that the circumstance of an infant being born alive and then dying after an abortion attempt has occurred at least 143 times between the years of 2003 and 2014.
Planned Parenthood has been backing the Democratic Party ahead of the 2020 presidential election, as the Democratic candidates largely align with Planned Parenthood’s goals on abortion.
The New York Times noted: “In recent years, Planned Parenthood has become one of the biggest sources of volunteer power for Democratic campaigns. In 2018, the group’s political arm gave more than $1.1 million to Democrats and just $5,735 to Republicans, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.”
In October, Planned Parenthood’s super PAC announced that it planned to spend $45 million in battleground states to support pro-abortion candidates.
CNN noted that the funding effort “clocks in at more than triple what the group spent during the last presidential election year and eight times what it spent during the 2018 midterms — a telling sign of Planned Parenthood’s anticipated full court press in the coming election after recent state and federal efforts to curtail reproductive rights, including abortion.”
The Times’ article highlighted how closely the Democratic Party has aligned itself with Planned Parenthood and the other major players in the abortion lobby. But it also noted that the multiple setbacks abortion-rights activists have suffered in recent months have called into question this politically-driven approach.
“I hope they continue doing what they are doing,” Penny Nance, president of the pro-life Concerned Women for America, said about the abortion-rights movement’s political strategy in the article.
“We’ll run the table in 2020.”
Lauretta Brown is a Register staff writer.
This story was updated after posting to correct the spelling of Penny Nance's name; the Register regrets the error.