Cecile Richards held the post of president of Planned Parenthood for more than a decade before announcing her resignation earlier this year. On Wednesday, the organization announced that Dr. Leana Wen will be her replacement.
Wen, who has been Baltimore’s health commissioner since 2015, is the first doctor to hold the position in nearly half a century. Her life story, too, is unique: She’s a Chinese immigrant who fled the country when she was 8 years old, and her family relied on Medicaid, food stamps and Planned Parenthood for health care as she grew up in California, she said.
The decision to appoint her to lead one of the country’s most visible women’s health organizations signals, as Wen said in a video for the group, Planned Parenthood’s desire to emphasize the basic health-care services it provides beyond abortions. Richards’s background is more political: She was deputy chief of staff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and is the daughter of former Texas governor Ann Richards.
But Wen, 35, is still an outspoken critic of President Trump, and she’s been appointed in an era when Planned Parenthood has fought administration attempts to cut off its taxpayer funding and faces deep concerns about the U.S. Supreme Court’s tilting increasingly against abortion rights.
In the taped message, Wen, an emergency room doctor by training, described seeing a patient die as a result of a botched abortion performed at home.
“She died because of a failure in our system,” Wen said, “and I wanted to fight for our most vulnerable individuals on a bigger scale.
“Reproductive health care is health care. Women’s health care is health care. And health care has to be understood as a fundamental human right.”
In April, Baltimore and the organization Healthy Teen Network won a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, resulting in a judge’s order to restore $5 million for pregnancy prevention programs for city teens. U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake ruled that HHS had given no reason to cut the money in the middle of a five-year grant. The government has appealed.
Wen said at the time that the lawsuit saved benefits for 20,000 Baltimore students in the program. She also has taken on the administration over attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. She will leave her job as Baltimore’s top public health official in October.
In recent years, Wen has been one of the more outspoken and progressive advocates of a public health approach to the opioid epidemic in a city that has long been plagued by heroin. She was an early proponent of widespread distribution of naloxone, the fast-acting antidote to opioid overdoses, making it available over the counter to anyone who wanted it.
In a written statement, former U.S. surgeon general Vivek H. Murthy said Wen’s “advocacy has extended far outside the walls of the hospital, as she has fought for laws that would ensure everyone has access to high quality health care.”
But the National Right to Life Committee criticized the appointment. “Planned Parenthood’s primary focus is on abortion, with their clinics performing more than one-third of abortion[s],” Carol Tobias, the organization’s president, said in a statement. “No doubt Leana Wen will seek to continue promoting and expanding Planned Parenthood’s empire.”
Planned Parenthood traces its founding to Margaret Sanger’s efforts to provide women in Brooklyn with birth control advice in 1916. Wen will be its sixth president and the second physician to hold the title.
It claims 12 million supporters. According to an annual report, only 3 percent of its work involves abortion. The group provides testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, contraceptives and birth control information, and breast exams and Pap smears among its services.
In fiscal 2017, the organization and its affiliates had revenue of more than $1.4 billion, of which more than $500 million came from government reimbursements and grants.