Planned Parenthood's Leana Wen: Ready for a Good Fight

Pam Harrison


January 17, 2019

Planned Parenthood's Capable New Leader

If anyone is up for a good fight, it's Planned Parenthood's newly appointed president, Leana Wen, MD.

Dr Leana Wen, President, Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA). Courtesy of PPFA.

As the former health commissioner for Baltimore City, Maryland, Wen has already fought countless battles on behalf of public health—many of which she has won.

Now, with Planned Parenthood Federation of American under siege by the Trump Administration, Wen, the first physician to be appointed president of the organization in nearly 50 years, is once again preparing for major combat in defense of medicine and the people it serves.

"The two things that I have been doing throughout my career as an emergency room physician and as a health commissioner in Baltimore are providing healthcare and fighting to protect access to that care," Wen said, in an interview with Medscape.

As an emergency room physician, Wen is a self-declared "boots-on-the-ground" advocate for the underserved—the homeless, the substance abuser, the uninsured—all of whom have shown up at one point or another in her emergency room.

"If someone comes to me for care, it's my obligation to provide them with the best care that I can—but I also know that very often, the reason why patients are sick isn't just the disease they are coming in with; it's everything else that's making them unwell," Wen explained. "For example, if a patient has sustained a stroke, is it because they couldn't afford the drugs they needed to keep their blood pressure under control?"

And, she reflected, "What about the patient who has overdosed on opioids? Very likely, these patients need far more than to sleep off the overdose before being turned back out onto the same mean streets again."

Wen may not be able to save patients from their abysmal economic circumstances, but she can offer them the care they need at the time they need it and lobby on their behalf for their right to have continued access to that care, a dual mantle that she will be bringing to her new position as president of Planned Parenthood.

For example, in Baltimore (where Wen still lives, although she divides her time between Planned Parenthood offices in New York and in Washington, DC), she ran clinics that delivered reproductive healthcare that included sex education programs. When the Trump Administration threatened to cut funding for the sex education initiatives, "we sued the administration and won," Wen said.

"And it is the same spirit of providing care and protecting patients' rights that drives me every day," she added.

Drawing the Battle Lines

Make no mistake: Further battles loom for Wen and her dedicated team of healthcare professionals who provide the services offered by Planned Parenthood around the country.

Take, for starters, the fact that some politicians in the United States still don't believe that all women should have access to birth control. This was made starkly clear when several Republican-led states tried to block low-income Medicaid beneficiaries from coming to Planned Parenthood for non-abortion-related services including vaccination, well-woman exams, and contraception. (Right now, no federal tax dollars can be used for abortion anywhere in the country.)

Federal circuit courts ruled against two states, Kansas and Louisiana, and the states appealed to the US Supreme Court. The nation's highest court, however, has refused to hear these cases, essentially siding with Planned Parenthood for the time being.[1]

More such cases will undoubtedly follow. And with the recent appointment to the Supreme Court of Brett Kavanaugh, another judge with conservative views on reproductive health, "we are facing a very real probability that Roe v. Wade could be overturned or further eroded in the next year, which is deeply troubling as I have seen what it means when people do not have access to healthcare," Wen said. (Roe v. Wade was the landmark decision made in 1973 by the US Supreme Court on the constitutionality of laws that criminalized or restricted access to abortion.)

And on it goes. Just after the midterm elections in November 2018, the Trump Administration issued a rule that would essentially allow employers to deny female employees insurance coverage for contraception.

Funding for the Title X Family Planning Program, which has been in place since the 1970s to help low-income families access affordable birth control, is also being threatened; along with it, the Trump Administration is expected to pass a "gag rule" which would prohibit physicians from counseling patients about their full reproductive health options.

There is no other aspect of healthcare where we allow politicians to tell physicians how we can practice medicine.

"There is no other aspect of healthcare where we allow politicians to tell physicians how we can practice medicine," Wen said, emphasizing that "this is about denying women bodily autonomy, without which we can never be truly free or equal."

Soldiering On, With Pride

Despite all of these potential threats to reproductive health services, Wen plans to simply carry on. "Planned Parenthood has always been about providing care to people who need it the most," Wen explained.

From about 600 healthcare clinics around the country, the organization will continue to offer not only the core services they have always provided but such new and innovative initiatives as counseling women about hormone replacement therapy as a potential treatment for menopausal symptoms.

Because so many patients come in to Planned Parenthood with undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues, the organization is also starting to offer health and trauma services related to psychiatric diagnoses.

Planned Parenthood also offers services to the LGBTQ community—for example, transgender patients are able to access gender-affirming hormone therapy at certain locations.

And while Planned Parenthood is often thought of as an organization that provides reproductive counseling and services to women, "lots of men come to us for birth control, sexually transmitted disease testing or treatment, and HIV testing—we are proud to serve all patients who come through our doors," Wen declared.

Proud, too, is Wen of Planned Parenthood's vast team of clinicians, most of whom are not physicians but include nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and other healthcare professionals, all working together to provide the care that people need, regardless of their life circumstances.

"Reproductive health and reproductive choice are fundamental to all people being able to live the lives they want to live," Wen insisted, "and all men, women, and youth should be empowered to make the choices they need. That is my job—to provide services and education to people wherever they are, and I am proud to be able to do this through the lenses of Planned Parenthood."