You may have heard of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. It ranked at No. 27 on Forbes magazine’s 100 largest charities in 2018, with a total revenue of $1.46 billion.
Understanding Planned Parenthood primarily as another business — simply another trusted American brand, giving customers what they want, just like a restaurant chain, a bookstore, or a fitness center—might help explain why Dr. Leana Wen appeared in a Corner Office column, in which New York Times business writer David Gelles engages executives in Q&A discussions about their lives and careers.
Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, Gwyneth Paltrow of Goop and inventor James Dyson are among other executives popping up at Corner Office in recent months. Such interviews are most engaging for those of us readers whose eyes glaze over at the first mention of a spreadsheet.
The key difference between these executives and Wen? Only Planned Parenthood will sell you a legal abortion.
Is it unreasonable to expect any mainstream news profile of Planned Parenthood’s chief executive to engage this point directly and to acknowledge major cultural and religious disputes about abortion law? Has abortion now become simply another part of culture’s Muzak, something we all know is a daily reality not discussed among the polite? There are no ethical or moral questions here that divide Americans?
Worse, has it joined the ever-growing list of Settled Topics among journalists, in which there are establishment heroes (abortion-rights advocates), villains (abortion-rights opponents) and color commentators (journalists)?
Wen was the focus of Corner Office on May 2, in conjunction with Planned Parenthood’s announcement that she would be the first physician to lead the organization. Gelles devotes roughly 1,700 to the edited transcript of his interview with Wen. How many times might you see a direct reference to abortion?
The winning answer: two, both from the spoken words of this former president of the American Medical Student Association.
When Wen has stirred herself to this remarkable flash of candor, it is within the context of casting those who oppose unlimited abortion rights in the worst possible light:
What’s your priority as president of Planned Parenthood?
Planned Parenthood has always been about holding two things together. One is providing health care and education, and the second is fighting to protect access to that care. In my job in Baltimore, I handled natural disasters and outbreaks. But the crises at Planned Parenthood are all man-made. There are thousands of people who wake up every day thinking that their job is to take away everything that we stand for, to take away bodily autonomy, to take away the right to health care for millions of people who depend on us. That is a sobering thought.
This is a more combative role than the ones you’ve had previously. It’s not just advocacy. You’re having to fight.
In a way, that’s what I’ve been doing my entire life. There are people who are on the right side of history, and there are people who are on the wrong side of history. Providing access to health care is on the right side of history, and it’s those battles that I’ve been fighting throughout.
If Roe v. Wade is overturned, one in three women of reproductive age — 25 million women — will be living in states where abortion is outlawed, banned and criminalized. We know what happens when we do not have access to safe, legal abortion, which is that women will die. That’s what happened pre-Roe, and that’s what will happen again.
That’s all we hear from Wen about abortion. We hear nothing about she may think about the one-child policy of China, land of her birth, which took quite a toll on the bodily autonomy of would-be mothers and especially on their yet-unborn daughters.
We don’t hear anything about any interactions Wen has known with the dreadful people who wake up each day so determined to “take away everything that we stand for.”
There’s a brief section on her time as Baltimore’s health commissioner, which more than anything captures her concern for helping needy people:
I came to Baltimore and met with a lot of people to understand what this job would entail, and it was everything I’d ever wanted to do. It was my dream job to actually not only treat the patient in front of me, but to address these systemic issues in food availability and housing, in health systems and structures, and addressing deep-seated racial inequities.
If you are wealthy, if you are privileged, you will get the best medical care. But if you are a person who comes from a low-income background, struggling to make ends meet, as my family did, then you were out of luck. That fundamental unfairness in our system is what I wanted to address. I do not accept that health care should be a privilege that’s reserved only to some. It has to be a guarantee and a fundamental human right to everyone.
But then there is this paradox — Wen felt drawn to Planned Parenthood soon after she gave birth to a son:
All my brain was occupied with figuring out how to be a mom. But then two things happened around the time I heard about this job. Somebody gave me a copy of Cecile Richards’s book. And then I gave the commencement address at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins, and my message to the graduates was that we need to take action now, that we shouldn’t wait for others to step up first.
I thought a lot about my son as I was giving the speech, and asked whether I would be able to tell him that I did everything I could. So then I read Cecile’s book, and here I am.
Yes, of course.