On Tuesday, Planned Parenthood ousted its new president, Dr. Leana Wen, who had served in the job for less than a year.
Wen, a 36-year-old Shanghai-born physician and former health commissioner in Baltimore, was the first doctor to head the organization in half a century. Wen had defended abortion rights, but had endeavored to shift Planned Parenthood’s focus from reproductive rights to a broader conception of women’s health. She had also alienated staff and board alike with a high-handed management style.
The ouster came a day after the Trump administration’s latest effort to cut off federal funding for clinics that provide abortions or even provide abortion counseling. Behind the question of Wen’s personal style is a huge strategic question about the role and future of Planned Parenthood at a time when the right has succeeded in restricting abortion access and created the mistaken impression that the public is increasingly divided on the abortion question. (Contrary to the right’s propaganda, most Americans want abortion to be legal, safe, and rare, a public sentiment that has not shifted in decades.)
The strategic question is whether Planned Parenthood should continue its historic role as the defender and advocate of reproductive rights, or downplay that stance in favor of a softer public health image. In her departure statement, Wen cited “philosophical differences with the board,” and declared her conviction that “the best way to protect abortion care is to be clear that it is not a political issue but a health-care one, and that we can expand support for reproductive rights”.
After hoping that Wen was the right person to pull off that straddle, the Board rightly concluded that this was no time to abandon the fight, and doubled down as abortion-rights champion. Abortion rights are nothing if not political. They should not be, but the right has made them so. To pretend otherwise is wishful thinking.
Planned Parenthood is unique in that it is both a major provider of women’s health services through its non-profit 501(c)(3), and an indispensable political advocate of reproductive rights through its (c)(4), Planned Parenthood Action Fund. This combination gives the organization a special reach. When Cecile Richards stepped down last year as Planned Parenthood president, everyone concerned knew that her shoes would be hard to fill.
To succeed Wen, the Board turned to a woman of exceptional talent and principle, Alexis McGill Johnson. Though Johnson’s title is ‘acting president’ and the board has promised a national search, Johnson has long been discussed as an inside candidate to succeed Wen.
McGill Johnson, on the Planned Parenthood board for nearly a decade, served as its chair from 2013 to 2015. She is a 49-year-old Princeton alum (think other powerful Princeton women such as Michelle Obama and Heather McGhee) with a graduate degree from Yale, and the mother of two school-aged children.
McGill Johnson first came to national attention as an organizer in the 2002-2004 period, working with Sean “Diddy” Combs, using hip-hop to organize young people to become engaged in politics. She is married to the progressive economist Rob Johnson.
The appointment of Johnson confirms that Planned Parenthood will continue its unique role as provider of women’s health and key advocate of reproductive rights.