Was Dr. Leana Wen ousted from her role as Planned Parenthood president for her problematic management style or because she endeavoured to depoliticize, and better facilitate, women’s health?
Serving as president of the storied women’s health cum political organization for less than a year, Wen had begun to change the group from a political and fundraising powerhouse into an institution to serve the health needs of women, from maternal health, to mental health, and addiction assistance.
When Wen was first in talks with the search committee, she asked about Planned Parenthood’s mission. “Did they see Planned Parenthood as an advocacy organization first, with medical services that are necessary to strengthen its impact, or did they see Planned Parenthood as a health care organization first, with advocacy as a necessary vehicle to protect rights and access?” Her view was the latter, and she got the job.
But 8 months later, she says that she “is leaving the organization sooner than [she’d] hoped because of philosophical differences about the future and direction of Planned Parenthood.” She “came to Planned Parenthood to run a national health care organization and to advocate for the broad range of public health policies that affect our patients’ health… The new Board has determined that the priority of Planned Parenthood moving forward is to double down on abortion rights advocacy.”
There are hints that an additional issue was that Wen focused her efforts on women’s reproductive health, and was not okay with the shifting language on gender replacing “women.” Per an update from diligent Buzzfeed reporter Ema O’Connor, Wen’s handling of language surrounding trans inclusion was a problem for Planned Parenthood staff.
While Wen didn’t address this in her statement, the language surrounding inclusion of trans women in women’s health care is a barrier to women’s health care, while trans men are often considered men and therefore left out of the conversation and advocacy, despite having female bodies. This is why it’s so essential to use words per their actual meanings, and not according to definitions that affirm, but do not materially support, patients and their actual bodies.
Planned Parenthood has bent over backwards over dictionaries in order to be as inclusive as possible, would not deny reproductive health services to a trans individual. But giving into speech codes that infantilize us does not benefit women in any way. In demanding that the language around women’s health be gender-neutral, the real issues surrounding women and their unique and complex health needs cannot be properly discussed. Using the term person when one is talking about bodies does not distinguish between male bodies and female bodies doesn’t indicate how a body should be cared for.
At its best, Planned Parenthood is a women’s reproductive health organization that supports health clinics, research, and service in support of women. It provides access to birth control, including abortion, testing and care for sexually transmitted diseases. It has come under fire in recent years, and its name has become synonymous with the pro-abortion movement. This has become a problem for an organization that, in my youth, was considered the gold standard for access to birth control and confidential women’s health care.
The politicization of women’s health in American discourse has been infuriating. Every politician believes it is their right to weigh in on what kind of birth control women should have access too, argues over insurance funding for women’s hormonal birth control, and of course the ultimately divisive practice of abortion. But women’s health care is about so much more than pregnancy termination, with Wen’s ouster, it’s clear that Planned Parenthood has lost sight of that.
Wen’s concerns about middle America’s perceptions of Planned Parenthood being an abortion heavy political machine are well-founded. The push of Planned Parenthood into a political organization prioritizing abortion and the trans-ing of language around women’s health lost many supporters. The political action is less important than providing the services, and while the US is in a states’ battle over abortion access, and Planned Parenthood has been fighting to maintain abortion services in rural, red states, the focus on abortion itself and female erasure in language waylays the mission.
All individuals require health care. Anyone with a body needs medical care, that’s not in question. But that a traditionally, women’s health-oriented organization feels it necessary to remove a director who does just that is a disservice to its mission. Wen was right that the best way forward for Planned Parenthood is to be more focussed on a holistic approach to women’s health care, instead of getting lost in the weeds of the abortion debate.
The more Planned Parenthood becomes synonymous with extreme abortion advocacy, the less they will be able to do for conservative women, because those women simply will not feel comfortable or welcome to access the other services. Abortion should be a small, exceptional component to women’s healthcare and not the driving force.
Wen’s statement makes it clear that she was thinking of the alienated young women in all those states where abortion access is under the most threat. Think of the alienated young woman in Arkansas who needs urgent care but is only further alienated by undergrad-style identity-politics newspeak in a brochure.
Wen was right to remove language about gender in favour of language about biological sex. Far from an ideologue, she is a medical doctor, with a detailed understanding of the relevance of sex versus gender affirmation. Sex education is already in a rather tenuous position in the US. There are different standards of what constitutes sex education, lack of information for young women about birth control and their bodies in general. Now the focus of that one, primary advocacy organization for women’s health, Planned Parenthood, diverging from language that reaches the most women, will lead to alienating exactly those women who need their services most.