The departure of Dr. Leana Wen from Planned Parenthood this week is an exclamation point on troubling times for the abortion giant.
Planned Parenthood is battling the financial impact of a new anti-abortion rule from the Trump administration, dozens of new abortion restrictions in states across the country, the continued reverberations of a video series that exposed its dealings in aborted fetus parts, and a Supreme Court that could review abortion precedent. All the while donations have declined, and many of the most trusted and senior staff have left as well.
“She walked in and hired people in very senior leadership roles who knew nothing about Planned Parenthood,” a former senior staffer at Planned Parenthood told Buzzfeed News, regarding Wen. A string of high profile departures during her tenure concerned the board, to the point where they “looked up and realized nearly all the staff they knew and trusted were gone,” Buzzfeed reported. (RELATED: Journos Strip Pretense Of Balance In Abortion Reporting, As Pro-Life Wins Mount)
Those departures include the executive vice president, Dawn Laguens, the executive director of Planned Parenthood’s political arm, Deirdre Schifeling, the director of political outreach, Wendi Wallace, and an internal pick for senior vice president for policy, advocacy and campaigns, Dana Singiser, reported The New York Times.
The board ousted Wen on Tuesday in what she described as a “secret meeting” following weeks of negotiations over a philosophical disagreement about the direction of the company. Wen elaborated in a brief statement and a longer departure letter to her colleagues, saying she wanted the organization to focus more on branding itself as a healthcare provider instead of a political powerhouse fighting for abortion. “We can expand support for reproductive rights by finding common ground with the large majority of Americans who understand reproductive health care as the fundamental health care that it is,” she wrote in the statement.
Buzzfeed News reported Wen upset staff by “refusing” to use “trans-inclusive” language and wanted to avoid talking about transgender issues, because she thought it would alienate people in the Midwest. And she preferred to use the term “abortion care” rather than “abortion,” in order to emphasize her view that it’s not a political battle, but a healthcare battle. She reportedly struggled to manage her staff and earn their trust from day one, who had worked under the former President Cecile Richards, who was credited for beefing up the organization’s political muscle. Wen did not respond to a request for comment.
The New York Times and The Washington Post described Planned Parenthood Tuesday as “on the defensive” in the nationwide battle over abortion, pointing to new restrictions, poor fundraising numbers, a looming Supreme Court and David Daleiden’s undercover video series. Planned Parenthood is in a “particularly fraught moment” for pro-abortion activists, The New York Times reported. And The Washington Post described Wen’s ouster as “one of the most difficult moments in the group’s history.”
The 2015 video series, in which Planned Parenthood executives callously discussed harvesting aborted fetuses for researchers, and staff were seen dissecting the fetuses for specific requested parts, resulted in a Republican push to defund the organization that continues today. (RELATED: Here’s What A Typical Day Of Work Harvesting Fetuses Looks Like)
A Republican-controlled Congress sent a defund measure to President Obama’s desk in 2016, but it was vetoed. And the Republican-led Congress did not get a similar measure to President Trump’s desk before losing the House to Democrats in the 2018 midterm. But the Trump administration has picked up on the effort, and this year rolled back some funding for the group through executive action. The rule prohibits Title X funds from organizations that refer patients for abortions or provide abortions — every Planned Parenthood clinic in the country.
The $60 million chunk is a small portion of the half a billion in federal funds Planned Parenthood receives every year, but nonetheless would put a dent in their finances. Fundraising under Wen has also declined significantly, Buzzfeed reported. Private donations made up nearly 40 percent of Planned Parenthood’s revenue in 2017 and 2018, according to the organization’s annual report, $630.8 million. Wen took over in September of 2018.
The organization is spending money in legal battles at the state and federal level, including a challenge to the Trump administration’s Title X rule. It’s also fighting furiously to combat a slew of new abortion restrictions in dozens of states in recent years. Five states this year passed a ban on abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected — Georgia, Mississippi, Ohio, Louisiana and Kentucky — and Alabama effectively banned the procedure. Ten others have introduced or moved similar bills through their state legislatures, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Many of these are intended to trigger a Supreme Court review of abortion precedent. In total, 33 states have passed 479 abortion restrictions since 2011.
Conservatives on the Supreme court appear increasingly bullish about revisiting abortion precedent. Justice Clarence Thomas said in June he believes it’s time for the Supreme Court to address the “erroneous ‘undue burden’ standard,” because in his view abortion jurisprudence has “spiraled out of control.” That standard stands in the way of more drastic state abortion bans.
Regarding the court’s decision not to take up an Alabama law prohibiting surgical abortions, Thomas wrote, “Although this case does not present the opportunity to address our demonstrably erroneous ‘undue burden ‘standard, we cannot continue blinking the reality of what this court has wrought.”
Planned Parenthood has named board member Alexis McGill Johnson acting president and CEO of both Planned Parenthood and its political arm until they find a replacement for Wen.