In 2016, nearly 2.5 million people turned to Planned Parenthood for health care at more than 600 clinics across the country. Beginning today, its leadership responsibilities fall to Dr. Leana Wen, who takes over as the organization’s new president.
Dr. Wen, who was Baltimore’s health commissioner, is a practicing emergency room physician and mother of a 14-month-old. She’s the first doctor to lead Planned Parenthood in half a century. Appearing on “CBS This Morning” Monday, she said the organization’s mission is “deeply personal” to her.
“I was a patient of Planned Parenthood, and so was my mother and my sister, just like one in five women in America,” she said “When we first came to this country, my mother didn’t have health care anywhere else. And Planned Parenthood was there for her, just like it’s there for women across the country, to provide cancer screenings, to provide birth control.”
Now she has the perspective of a doctor as well as a patient.
“For me, it’s deeply personal. I treated a woman who waited more than a year before she had a lump in her breast examined. And by the time she got treated, it was too late. She had metastatic cancer and she died not long after I saw her, leaving behind three young children.
“For me, that’s what it’s about. It’s about saving people’s lives. That’s the work that we’ve done at Planned Parenthood for over 100 years. And I’m proud to keep on providing health care and protecting access to that care.”
Wen was asked if she had any trepidation about taking the job, since Planned Parenthood has come under attack by anti-abortion activists. “Being a parent has clarified my values,” she said. “And what I want to do is to shape the future for my son, Eli. And it’s a future where all people are treated the same, that all people have the right to health care, and where it’s a society where we trust women and we trust all people to make the best decisions for themselves and their bodies.”
“Were you encouraged after the [midterm] elections?” asked co-host Gayle King.
“Yes and no. On the one hand, we saw people – women, people of color – rise up to speak in favor of reproductive rights and access to health care. But on the other hand, less than 24 hours after the election, the Trump administration came out with new rules that would allow employers to deny women birth control coverage.
“I can’t believe it’s 2018 and we’re still debating birth control. Imagine if we’re having the same conversation about vasectomies or about insulin. Women’s health care is health care, and health care shouldn’t be political.
Co-host John Dickerson asked, “You said becoming a mother clarified your values. So many people I’ve talked to who want to restrict abortion rights said parenthood clarified their values, and that’s why they want to restrict abortion rights. What do you tell those people who have the same parent-based authenticity to their beliefs that you claim?”
“I respect each person’s beliefs for themselves; my problem is if they want to impose their own beliefs on other people,” Wen said. “As a physician, I trust my patients. My job is to give medically accurate information to my patients and allow them to make the best choices about their health. I don’t think that politicians have any role to play in the exam room in determining people’s personal medical decisions. I trust women.”
Though she admitted seeing mixed results, Wen was positive: “We are seeing people rise up in record numbers in favor of women’s health care. We have more than 25 governors now who are pro-women’s health. We’re also seeing solidly red states, like Utah, Idaho, and Nebraska, vote in favor of Medicaid expansion, which indicates that people want more health care, not less. I strongly believe the position that health care has to be a human right, and women’s health care is health care.”
When asked if she would characterize talk that Roe v. Wade may be overturned as hyperbole, Wen described seeing a real threat. “There’s a very high likelihood that Roe v. Wade could be overturned in this Supreme Court, which would leave 25 million women – which is a third of women of reproductive age in this country – without access to reproductive rights.
“There are 15 cases right now that are just one step away from the Supreme Court. And in the last seven years there have been 400 laws passed in different states that directly restrict women’s access. And I’m deeply concerned about this from a public health perspective.”