Planned Parenthood ousts head amid heightened attack on abortion rights

Leana Wen

Planned Parenthood president Leana Wen was ousted by the organization, saying they had philosophical differences. | Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Planned Parenthood today ousted its president Leana Wen after less than a year on the job, citing the intensifying attack on abortion rights across the nation.

Wen, the first physician to lead the organization in nearly 50 years, in tweets said she was fired after a “secret meeting” and that she and the organization had philosophical differences about how to fight back against abortion opponents on the ascent during the Trump administration. She said she sought to treat abortion as a health issue, while others framed it more as a political fight.

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During Wen’s tenure, numerous states passed strict laws limiting or nearly banning abortion — and the sole clinic in the state of Missouri is at risk of closure. The future of abortion rights, enshrined in the Roe v.Wade decision more than 40 years ago, is widely believed to be heading to the Supreme Court.

Just this week, the Trump administration began carrying out a new policy on federal family planning funds, barring any clinic that provides abortion or gives women abortion referrals. That means Planned Parenthood can no longer get millions of dollars under the Title X family planning program — not a complete victory for Republicans who want to entirely defund Planned Parenthood but a giant step.

Planned Parenthood said in a statement it had named Alexis McGill Johnson acting president and CEO of both the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and its political arm, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. She had served on both boards and has long been involved with the organization. Planned Parenthood said it would start searching for a new permanent CEO next year.

“Alexis is a renowned social justice leader, lifelong political organizer, and a tireless advocate for reproductive rights and access to quality, affordable health care,” Planned Parenthood board chair Aimee Cunningham and Action Fund chair Jennie Rosenthal said.

An immigrant from Shanghai, a Harvard-trained emergency room physician and a Rhodes Scholar, Wen was an ambitious, media-savvy and innovative health commissioner of Baltimore before starting at Planned Parenthood last November. Wen often spoke not just of Planned Parenthood’s role as a beleaguered abortion provider but as a health organization that provides a variety of services, from cancer screenings to treating sexually transmitted infections to addressing mental health and substance abuse.

But some of her public statements left her open to criticism. The Washington Post fact checkers called her out for exaggerating the death rate from illegal abortions prior to Roe.

In addition, there had been significant staff turnover during her tenure at Planned Parenthood. Several top staffers left, including Deirdre Schifeling, the executive director of the organization’s political arm, and Wendi Wallace, its director of political outreach. Just this week, vice president of public policy Emily Stewart was named the new executive director of Community Catalyst, a Boston-based consumer health advocacy organization.

“It’s shocking, the damage she’s done,” one insider, a former employee who asked not to be identified, said of Wen. The person said the board knew when they hired Wen that she wanted to stress Planned Parenthood’s role as a health provider — and that was not the reason for the split.

“The board knew that that was her perspective,” this individual said. “This is about this person being an incompetent manager.”

Planned Parenthood also came under fire in December after The New York Times published an investigation into its poor treatment of its own pregnant employees. “We must do better,” Wen said at the time.

Though Wen spoke about abortion as a reproductive health issue, she did also address it in frankly political terms. In a conversation with POLITICO just a few weeks ago, she painted a battle plan based on both a health care message — emphasizing the organization’s many health services — and on politics.

She spoke about how younger women were being politically activated by the threat to abortion rights and said: “This is an existential threat that will continue to drive the narrative” through the 2020 elections.

Rachana Pradhan contributed to this report.