WASHINGTON — Leana Wen sat in her new office behind a bare desk, surrounded by stark white walls. The rest of Planned Parenthood’s headquarters were decorated in bright pink protest signs, toys, hats, printed-out memes, pictures of Beyoncé and Sen. Kamala Harris, and pictures of Christine Blasey Ford testifying before Congress. But Wen’s office remained a blank slate.
“Look at these gorgeous posters,” Wen said, unrolling a pink poster. “I haven’t had a moment yet to put them up, or anything else really.”
The poster pictured a young woman looking steadily at the camera with the words “This Is Health Care” printed over her head.
Wen, 35, is only about two months into her tenure as the new head of Planned Parenthood, but she hit the ground running with this new campaign that sent the clear message: Planned Parenthood is first and foremost a health care organization, not a political symbol.
This message is not a new one, but the doubling down and commitment to it at the highest level is new and significant. “This Is Health Care” is a very different tone than former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards adopted with campaigns like “#Fight4BirthControl” or “I Stand With PP.”
“People aren’t coming to Planned Parenthood to make a political statement,” Wen told BuzzFeed News sitting in her office in late December. “They’re coming because they need their vaccinations. They need their well woman exams. They’re getting HIV tests.”
Wen is the first physician to be appointed Planned Parenthood president in nearly 50 years, and on Jan. 9, she is kicking off a five-month listening tour of 20 Planned Parenthood affiliates across the country. The aim of the trip is to learn how best to add or expand nonabortion services that are not normally associated with Planned Parenthood, like treatment for opioid addiction, diabetes management, and mental health counseling.
“The last thing I would want is people to get the impression that we are backing off of our core services,” Wen said. “What we will always be here to do is provide abortion access as part of the full spectrum of reproductive health care, it’s who we are. But we also recognize that for so many of our patients we are their only source of health care.”
Planned Parenthood announced Wen’s appointment in September, nine months after BuzzFeed News broke the news of Richards’ plans to step down after more than a decade in her role as president. Richards officially left in late April, and Wen assumed her role on Nov. 12, becoming the first immigrant and first woman physician in the role.
Wen, who immigrated to the US from China with her family when she was 7 and grew up relying on Medicaid and Planned Parenthood services herself, was an emergency room doctor before becoming the Baltimore health commissioner in January 2015. Planned Parenthood is spotlighting her medical credentials even more by applying for her to be legally able to perform blood tests and screenings for Planned Parenthood patients herself, a service that is far outside of her job description as president, but a great photo opportunity. Wen will also continue to work at an urgent care clinic in Baltimore and wants to be able to practice at Planned Parenthood clinics as well.
Wen is not a wholly apolitical choice, however. All Planned Parenthood press releases about her appointment made sure to emphasize that she successfully sued the Trump administration for cutting funds from the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, and that she has fought changes the Trump administration attempted to make to federal family planning funding. In the limited interviews she has given thus far, including with BuzzFeed News, she has made it clear she is ready to continue down that warpath.
Wen has also spoken up frequently and passionately against Trump’s immigration policy. She told BuzzFeed News that she and her family could likely not have survived or prospered in the way they did under the policies Trump is proposing, and that she wants to make sure everyone in the US can access Planned Parenthood care.
Still, strategists and advocates on both sides of the aisle see her presidency as a pointed and purposeful departure from Richards, and one that sends a clear message.
“Smart move by Dr. Wen,” Adam Probolsky, a prominent political pollster and head of Probolsky Research told BuzzFeed News over email. “The hyper-political nature of Planned Parenthood in recent years has turned off many Americans who would ordinarily be more sympathetic to an organization that does so much to advance women’s health.”
Vice president of the anti-abortion group March for Life, Tom McClusky, agreed, saying “It’s brilliant hiring her, I was preparing for another elected shill kind of person,” he told BuzzFeed News. “To hire someone with a Dr. in front of her name — I think they think, with the most pro-abortion Congress we’ve ever had, the time is right” to hammer home the view that abortion is health care.
But some Democratic strategists are concerned that Wen’s shift to focusing on health care over politics is a sign Planned Parenthood is backing away from the fight.
“It’s a symbol of fatigue, the battle has been a tough one and they’re tired,” Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic campaign consultant who worked with former president Bill Clinton and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, told BuzzFeed News. “If you publicly project that you’re no longer an advocate but a provider of medical services, the presumption is the bad guys will no longer beat you up because you’re no longer poking a stick in their eyes all the time.”
Sheinkopf and another prominent Democratic strategist (who asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize his relationship with Planned Parenthood), said they saw this shift in messaging as a preemptive defense to attacks from the right, but that they didn’t think it would actually work and that the attacks would keep coming. All this would do, Sheinkopf speculated, is make advocates fighting on the ground feel abandoned.
Wen insisted, however, that the organization isn’t backing away from politics. In fact, she said she plans to expand Planned Parenthood’s political work to collaborate with the Democratic, pro–abortion rights candidates who won 2018 midterm elections on the state legislature and gubernatorial levels around the country. The organization will be heavily involved in the 2020 presidential elections, she said, and will continue to challenge the Trump administration’s abortion and reproductive health care policies.
But Wen comes to Planned Parenthood at a more peaceful time than it has seen in years, and the organization is in a very different position than it was when Richards was in charge. As of Jan. 3, Democrats hold the majority in the House. Among these new Democrats are several influential new members — like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ayanna Pressley, who supported Planned Parenthood and abortion rights as part of their campaigns — many of whom have already met with Wen, she told BuzzFeed News. In this new Congress, all legislative efforts to defund Planned Parenthood are likely dead on arrival.
Since Republicans took Congress in 2015, Planned Parenthood has repeatedly been a hair (or thumb)’s breadth from losing its more than $500 million in government funding. This reached its pinnacle in the summer of 2015, when the anti–abortion rights activist David Daleiden released a series of videos accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from the sale of “baby parts,” a term still used frequently by the organization’s opponents. The videos triggered more than a dozen Republican-governed states to investigate and temporarily defund Planned Parenthood, as well as a series of lengthy, Republican-led congressional investigations into the videos’ allegations, none of which were found to show evidence of wrongdoing.
With Congress off its back, Planned Parenthood can finally move out of its defensive crouch and focus on new projects, like Wen’s idea to turn more Planned Parenthood affiliates into one-stop shops where you can come in for birth control, STI tests, or an abortion, and meet clinic workers prepared to diagnose and treat a range of other problems unrelated to reproduction, from diet to depression to addiction.
There are no concrete plans for this expansion just yet, Wen told BuzzFeed News, but it could involve in-house mental health counselors, which a few clinics already have, and will likely include increased training for Planned Parenthood staff on how to provide “trauma-informed care.”
Wen also says she is looking into increasing Planned Parenthood patients’ access to opioid addiction treatment and naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses from heroin and other opioid drugs.
Naloxone is already available at a few Planned Parenthood clinics around the country, including at a Northern California clinic that is on the itinerary for Wen’s tour, but Wen wants to expand its availability nationwide. Many of the low-income areas where residents rely heavily on Planned Parenthood for care are also areas ravaged by the opioid epidemic.
As Baltimore’s health commissioner, Wen did significant work in the reproductive health sphere, including overseeing a maternal and child health program credited with reducing infant mortality in Baltimore by 40%. But some of her most revolutionary accomplishments were in the realm of opioid addiction treatment. In 2015, Wen issued a blanket prescription for naloxone to the entire city. Three years later, those free doses prevented more than 3,000 people from dying.
Wen’s philosophy since early in her career has been to “treat the whole patient,” she said. This means focusing on mental, physical, and reproductive health, but also focusing on the societal causes and not just the symptoms.
As an emergency room doctor, Wen would regularly see patients coming into the ER with life-threatening conditions because they were “cutting their medications into halves or quarters” out of an inability to pay for the correct dosage, saddling themselves with sky-high hospital fees instead. It was her job to treat the symptoms, she said, but she began wondering if she was being the best doctor she could be if she wasn’t trying to treat the cause.
“It was my duty to ensure that my next patients didn't have to come in with a heart attack or stroke because they couldn’t afford their diabetes or high blood pressure medications,” Wen said she realized.
And she will have to keep fighting for low-income patients in her new role as well. Planned Parenthood is in a better position than last year, but the attacks from the Trump administration are not behind them.
“One of the biggest and most important fights we will see this year are the Title X restrictions,” Wen told BuzzFeed News over the phone Friday, referring to the federal family planning funding program. Planned Parenthood serves about 41% of all the patients in need of Title X coverage. A new rule proposed by the Trump administration could greatly affect those patients and limit or prevent many of Wen’s plans for the future from being implemented.
The rule prevents Title X funding from going to organizations that offer nonabortion services, like contraception or gynecological exams, in the same facilities where they perform abortions. In other words, it would partially defund Planned Parenthood. The rule was introduced by Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services in May but is expected to officially go into effect this month (although Planned Parenthood and other advocacy organizations are likely to sue, potentially blocking it from taking effect until the litigation is through).
And the battle spurred by Daleiden’s videos over Planned Parenthood’s partnership with biomedical firms that use fetal tissue for scientific research has quietly and slowly continued under the Trump administration, with the Department of Justice taking up the cause last year.
Wen is facing internal challenges as well. A little more than a month after Wen started in her role, the New York Times published an article that quoted several current and former Planned Parenthood workers who claimed that they faced discrimination at work because they were pregnant. And many Planned Parenthood clinics around the country offer no paid parental leave, a seemingly hypocritical policy for an organization that itself fights for increased paid parental leave policies.
Wen told BuzzFeed News on Friday that when she accepted the job she did not know that some of the organization’s affiliates had this policy. Planned Parenthood is federated, so each state affiliate has its own board and individual policies. Under Wen’s direction, Planned Parenthood is investigating and launching an initiative to review the policies at all of its affiliates. It plans to publicly announce the results and specific plans to change those policies by fall of 2019.
On Wednesday, Wen will make the first stop on her five-month tour, starting at an affiliate in Ohio. This is the kind of pilgrimage former Planned Parenthood president Richards took often, but for her, Wen said, it will be different.
“Clinic visits through my eyes are different than the visits through her eyes,” Wen told BuzzFeed News, getting up to leave her new office. While Richards visited clinic workers as a political organizer and abortion rights champion, Wen said she’ll be talking to them medical worker to medical worker. “For me, I’m a frontlines health care fighter, I’m going back to my people. For her, she’s a frontlines organizer, going back to her people, but in a different way.”