How Leana Wen is changing the face of Planned Parenthood

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September 28, 2018

For the first time in almost 50 years, Planned Parenthood (PP) has chosen a doctor as their president, Dr. Leana Wen. Wen will succeed Cecile Richards, who had been president of P.P. since 2006.

According to a statement released on their website, Naomi Aberly, the chair of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America Board of Directors, knows that “because of Richards’ leadership and the amazing team she has built, the organization is well-positioned to continue to fulfill our mission of delivering quality, accessible sexual and reproductive health care and ensuring reproductive freedom.”

During her time as president, Richards led countless programs to increase the advocacy for women’s rights, in Washington as well as the doctor’s office. She almost quadrupled the number of supporters, from three million to 11 million in just over a decade. Richards also made sure that P.P. was a national front in pushing for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to include access to birth control and more preventative care.

Prior to being appointed as P.P.’s next president, Wen was the health commissioner for the city of Baltimore, Maryland. She will continue this position for an additional month after she is sworn in, according to an NPR article.

As the health commissioner in Baltimore, one of her largest accomplishments, in our opinion, was maintaining the programs that aimed to decrease teen pregnancy. Wen had originally been provided funding for a five-year program that worked to decrease the teen pregnancy rate in Baltimore, which was massively successful. However, the Trump administration cut the program short by two years for the reason that solid results were not being seen. However, the program boasted a 61 percent drop in teen pregnancy rates between 2000 and 2016.

So Wen sued President Trump. And won. The additional 5 million dollars that Wen and the city of Baltimore received helped some 20,000 students receive the necessary health education to reduce teen pregnancies.

Wen finds that it is important to treat addiction as a public health issue. Like many urban areas in the U.S., Baltimore faces an opioid crisis, which Wen has tackled head-on in her role as health commissioner. According to the Baltimore City Health Department website, she issued a blanket prescription for Naloxone, the opioid antidote, to all 620,000 Baltimore residents and has consequently saved over 1,800 lives since 2015.

In her TEDxBaltimore talk “Public Health as an Urban Solution”, Wen emphasizes how urban issues like addiction are fought by approaching racism, violence and structural inequality through the scope of public health. This is a valuable, fresh approach to bring to Planned Parenthood, which has increasingly directed focus and support towards low-income communities and communities of color that are most directly impacted by policies restricting women’s health.

Since becoming a doctor, Wen has experienced firsthand the struggles of being a physician and the basic human rights that are excluded in the field of medicine.

In a video released by P.P. to announce Wen’s appointment, she shared a personal story of her time as an E.R. physician, watching a woman die because of a home abortion because she was too afraid to seek medical attention.

Wen also has a special bond with P.P., having used their services when she was growing up because of her low-income status. When her parents immigrated with her to the U.S., they had 40 dollars to their name and had to use P.P. for her annual check-ups because they could not afford doctor’s visits.

As a physician, Wen likes to first and foremost think like a physician. Also in the video, Wen highlights the importance of health care as a fundamental human right, because it is. All health care, regardless of if it’s children’s health care or women’s health care, is the assistance in improving one’s physical or mental health.

Even though past presidents of P.P. have not necessarily been doctors, having a doctor among their highest ranking officials counts for something. “Having a physician as president is a sign that Planned Parenthood is mainstream medical care,” explained Wen.

Having no prior political experience, unlike her predecessor, does not intimidate Wen. Her main desire in joining comes with the belief that accessible health care should not have anything to do with politics because it is a basic human right.

“For the nearly 2.5 million people who walk through the doors of Planned Parenthood every single year, it’s not about politics. It’s about basic medical care,” Wen said in an interview with NPR. “It’s about providing healthcare to those people who need it. But it’s also about vigorously defending the right to health. It’s about fighting for access to health care.”

Wen’s appointment comes at a critical time for Planned Parenthood and women’s health. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh stands as a threat to women’s rights to their bodies. Just a year ago, he praised then-Justice William Rehnquist’s dissent from the 1973 case “Roe v. Wade,” which legalized abortion.

During his confirmation hearing earlier this month, he referred to birth control as “abortion-inducing drugs” when explaining his dissent on the 2015 case “Priests for Life vs. HHS. In an interview with Vox News, Wen stated, “All the evidence points to Kavanaugh, if he’s confirmed, for decades to come worsening the attacks on women’s health and putting people’s lives in jeopardy.”

Planned Parenthood also faces challenges regarding Title X, the program aimed to provide comprehensive family planning services to low-income communities. This past summer, the Trump administration proposed a new “gag rule” that would make it illegal for doctors at Title X-funded clinics to give patients any information about abortion or referrals to abortion services, even if patients ask for it.

According to Planned Parenthood, the organization serves 41 percent of patients who get care through Title X-funded health services. The proposed changes are designed to prevent patients from accessing Planned Parenthood, which is especially detrimental to low-income patients who have no other way to access these services.

Wen has openly defended Title X funding and criticized the proposed changes in the context of Baltimore City, where Title X funding is distributed to 23 clinics. She articulated in an op-ed for the Baltimore Sun that “the choice between censoring our providers and denying care to vulnerable women is not one that anyone should have to make.” Wen is well-prepared to continue to stand up for Title X as it impacts Planned Parenthood and underserved people across the nation.

Disruption to the benefits of Title X is just another in a long line of actions taken by the Trump administration to overturn all the work that former President Obama has done to improve medical care for citizens of lower socioeconomic status in the US.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) made affordable health care and insurance more accessible to a larger population, as well as expanding the Medicaid program. ACA ultimately provided women with birth control at no cost to them because it was seen as preventative health care by health insurance companies.

However, with the Trump administration now in office, a new rule was imposed that would allow companies to opt out of providing contraceptives for their employee, regardless of religious or moral reasons. Similar to her previous lawsuit that brought back health education to the students of Baltimore, Wen, alongside other health commissioners across the U.S., is suing the Trump administration for their unconstitutional sabotage of ACA.

Wen has come onto the P.P. scene at a very interesting time within the political climate. With Trump’s administration attempting to knock down all the work done by Obama during his presidency, controversy and conflict are everywhere.

The main benefit of having Wen as the voice of such an important company is the fact that she is not a politician. Oftentimes in politics, it always seems like the politicians look to further their career and get elected during the time of the election process; however, after being elected, do nothing that they have proposed.

But having Wen—from a doctoral standpoint, leading P.P. will boost the ability for the company to continue to follow through with all their future goals. She sees things from the doctor’s viewpoint, having been in both the shoes of patients and doctors. She knows what people need, and what people deserve, which is something she hopefully capitalizes on while she is working with P.P.

Her experience as health commissioner for Baltimore has already given her an inside look at public health in America and all the necessary changes that need to be made in order to bring accessible health care to all. And with the work that she has already done against the Trump administration, the public is aware that she is a force to be reckoned with. And the Trump administration should have realized this as well.

The face of P.P. may have changed, but it is definitely for the better. Being led by such a renowned professional in the medical and public health industry, P.P. will maintain its place at the forefront of advocacy for accessible medical care and preventative care, for women and children.

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