She held the official titles of president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, “held” being the operative word. Leana Wen was unceremoniously ousted from her post. According to what you read, it was the direct consequence of her refusal to use gender neutral language to describe the users of women’s health care services or her efforts to cast the mission of Planned Parenthood as more than just a hated abortion provider.
Only in the position for a year, her tenure was tumultuous internally during a tumultuous time externally.
I had been leading our organization’s fights against these attacks, and believe they offer even more reason for Planned Parenthood to emphasize its role in providing essential health care to millions of underserved women and families. People depend on Planned Parenthood for breast exams, cervical cancer screenings, H.I.V. testing and family planning. To counter those who associate the organization with only abortion and use this misconception to attack its mission, I wanted to tell the story of all of its services — and in so doing, to normalize abortion care as the health care it is.
Regardless of one’s views on abortion, in general, or its availability during the period of gestation, there is a question of what Planned Parenthood’s mission was and should be. Was it the foremost promoter of the right to abortion, no matter what? Was it one cog in the progressive machine of causes, such that Wen’s refusal to incorporate trans women into its reproductive health mission because they didn’t have a uterus and therefore were not among the pregnant persons for whom abortion might be needed, was traitorous?
Perhaps the greatest area of tension was over our work to be inclusive of those with nuanced views about abortion. I reached out to people who wrestle with abortion’s moral complexities, but who will speak out against government interference in personal medical decisions. I engaged those who identify as being pro-life, but who support safe, legal abortion access because they don’t want women to die from back-alley abortions. I even worked with people who oppose abortion but support Planned Parenthood because of the preventive services we provide — we share the desire to reduce the need for abortion through sex education and birth control.
There have been nutjobs, like Lena Dunham, who inflamed the situation by saying “I Still Haven’t Had an Abortion, But I Wish I Had.” This is the “in your face” school of mission control, pushing the envelope as hard as one can to troll the opposition. A step below are the people who see Planned Parenthood’s core mission as the last defender of abortion. Sure, they provide other women’s health services, but at the end of the day, it’s abortion or bust.
Wen’s goal was to normalize abortion as one of many women’s health services. And by women’s, it wasn’t the aspirational gender or the politically correct gender, but the people with female organs in need of the sort of health services that female organs require.
At Planned Parenthood, this wasn’t the war the staff believed they were fighting. They weren’t trying to get along with their opponents. They weren’t trying to water down the reputation of Planned Parenthood to make it broader, rounder and more socially acceptable as a source for women’s health that, among other things, provided abortions. They were in the battle of their life for abortion, and not only weren’t they afraid to say it, but they demanded it be said.
Wen was not the leader they were looking for.
Ultimately, my departure is not about me or the organization I continue to care deeply about. It goes beyond the movement for reproductive rights to the very ethos of our country. Can we put aside partisan differences to do what is best for the people we serve? Will the conversation continue to be dominated by a vocal minority from both ends of the spectrum, or can there be space for those of us in the middle to come together around shared values?
At a time when even manhole covers are politicized, the answer appears to be that we cannot. We can’t have a conversation because it immediately devolves into “shut up and do as you’re told, shitlord,” or the standard litany of epithets, both of which arise as a result of not acquiescing to the most strident voices. Challenge their hegemony and you’re racist, sexist, transphobic or worse.
Did anyone really believe Wen transphobic? Of course not. The notion is absurd. But she was still a traitor by not indulging the woke orthodoxy that trans women are real women merely because they had no uterus, could not get pregnant and therefore were not the patients of women’s health services, no matter how much they were otherwise embraced. The lack of a uterus isn’t a product of anyone’s phobia. It’s a product of reality. Wen was dealing with reality, which was intolerable to her staff.
In the scheme of huge issues for women, the right to an abortion is possibly the most significant concern they face. This doesn’t mean that most women see abortion as a good thing, but rather a terrible but necessary thing. This doesn’t mean that they approve of last minute abortions for fun, but if necessary to save a woman’s life. There are nuances involved, and most thoughtful people appreciate their existence and recognize that even a subject as controversial as abortion includes shades of reasonable concerns.
The fear of the extremes is that any giveback, any concession to any limitation on the right, will be step onto the slippery slope of eradicating the right and making abortion criminal again, as was rejected by Roe v. Wade. Is the wisest path to protecting the right to an abortion, not as something to celebrate but as a vital component of women’s health needs, refusing to acknowledge the nuanced issues by making it an all-or-nothing proposition? Will the future of Planned Parenthood be best served by extolling it as the premier abortion provider or the premier women’s health care provider?
It doesn’t matter at the moment. Wen was fired, so there’s no one left at Planned Parenthood with whom to have this conversation anyway.