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Inside The Power Struggle at Planned Parenthood

Former staffers of ousted President Leanna Wen paint a picture of a leader who lacked political savvy.

UNITED STATES - MAY 21: Dr. Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood, speaks at an abortion-rights rally at Supreme Court in Washington to protest new state bans on abortion services on Tuesday May 21, 2019. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Dr. Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood, speaks at an abortion-rights rally at Supreme Court in Washington to protest new state bans on abortion services on Tuesday May 21, 2019.

Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

The day before Dr. Leana Wen took the reins as president of Planned Parenthood — the first doctor to lead the organization in 50 years — staffers received a detailed memo indicating how things were going to operate under the new leadership. Addressed to the organization’s communications team, it included the eyebrow-raising directive “No action or requests should be taken until approval from the [Office of the President] is given.”

Planned Parenthood is a massive health care provider, serving more than 2.4 million patients at some 600 health clinics across the country, and a political powerhouse that had spent the preceding decade successfully deflecting repeated attempts to strip it of both public and private funding. Wen was taking the organization over from beloved president Cecile Richards at an especially fraught moment: a month after Brett Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court, just as conservatives around the country were pushing increasingly aggressive abortion restrictions through state legislatures in hopes of seeing Roe v. Wade reconsidered — possibly even overturned — by the high court. 

To longtime employees, the incoming president’s memo signaled both a fundamental misunderstanding of the way Planned Parenthood worked as an organization (reaching decisions through consensus and with input from various stakeholders) and served as a worrying indication Wen didn’t recognize the nature of the role she was stepping into. The sheer volume of requests alone would make it impractical, if not impossible, to run all of them through her office and still respond at the speed the news cycle demands. Most importantly, though, staffers felt the memo indicated — before Wen had even walked through the door — a deep mistrust of the organization’s existing employees and processes.

On Tuesday, less than eight months after she arrived, Planned Parenthood’s board of directors voted unanimously to remove Wen as president. Wen herself tweeted that she had been pushed out in a “secret meeting,” adding in a follow-up statement that she and the board had “philosophical differences over the direction and future of Planned Parenthood.” 

Planned Parenthood has not offered much in the way of an official explanation for the board’s decision, but a half dozen staffers who worked with Wen, almost all of whom left the organization during her short tenure, described the former emergency room doctor as an individual with a deeply compelling personal story, but who lacked the skill set and experience required to run a massive national political operation. Multiple people who spoke with Rolling Stone said that from the beginning Wen eschewed the advice of longtime staffers, relying instead on a small cadre of advisors she brought with her to the organization.

Wen’s first day was in November. Democrats, with organizing and fundraising help from Planned Parenthood, had just flipped the House and installed a record number of women in Congress. Despite it’s failure to block Kavanaugh’s nomination, the mood at Planned Parenthood was upbeat. It began to darken as employees realized just how unfamiliar Wen, who had most recently worked as Baltimore city health commissioner, was with the basics of political organizing — and how unwilling she was to accept advice from people who were.

That dynamic was put painfully on display in January, at an event hosted by the PAC Emily’s List in celebration of the new crop of female congresswomen. The purpose of such events, for someone in Wen’s position, is to introduce yourself to lawmakers, shake hands, take photos, and make connections. But Wen and her team had declined assistance preparing for the event, and it showed. Senators, congresswomen, and the head of EMILY’s List walked by unacknowledged or, if they did stop for a photo, were sometimes misidentified after the fact. The bungling of such a straightforward event mystified people who had spent years in the political trenches for Planned Parenthood. As one person who watched the scene unfold later told to Rolling Stone, “People are offering to help you. They want to help you. They want you to succeed and you’re just like: ‘No, I can do it on my own.’”

The most glaring indication of Wen’s political naiveté, in her former staffers’ estimation, however, was her belief that she could de-politicize Planned Parenthood. Wen’s strategy from the beginning was to emphasize her medical background, while positioning abortion as just one of a range of normal healthcare services Planned Parenthood provided. As she told Rolling Stone in March, “We should not be singling out and stigmatizing one aspect of health care… I know, as a physician, that reproductive health care is health care, that women’s health care is health care, that abortion is part of the full spectrum of reproductive health care and needs to be treated as the standard medical care that it is.”

The problem with that strategy, from the perspective of folks who had worked at Planned Parenthood for a long time, was that it misunderstood a crucial fact: that every piece of political work Planned Parenthood did was to ensure the organization could continue to provide its healthcare services, including abortion.

The organization was under constant threat from a well-organized opposition with the explicit political goal of defunding and destroying the organization. If Planned Parenthood ceased to be political — to fundraise, to organize, to elect pro-choice lawmakers — it would cease to exist.

Wen’s aversion to politically-charged issues was not limited to abortion, either. Planned Parenthood is one of the country’s top providers of trans healthcare, offering hormone replacement therapy in 28 states across the county. But it is work that Wen did not wish to promote widely, as she told one trans person in a meeting, she feared Planned Parenthood would lose support “in the Midwest” if she did.

Despite her apparent interest in avoiding controversy, staffers say Wen opened the organization up to criticism by repeating, against staff advice, a statistic that exaggerated the number of women who died as a result of abortions pre-Roe, and inflating the number of patients that Planned Parenthood serves every year in interviews.

The impression that Wen was difficult to work with was not helped by the fact that, shortly into her tenure at Planned Parenthood, select staffers received a 182-page handbook created during her time at the Baltimore City Health Department with tips for how to work with her. According to BuzzFeed News, which first reported on its existence, the “Special Assistant’s Guide” included advice on the subjects of “timeliness (‘Nothing can fall through the cracks’), office demeanor (‘Make sure to frequently look up [from Twitter] and make eye contact with Dr. Wen to see if she is trying to communicate urgent information’), language use (‘Dr. Wen ‘learns’ not ‘hears’’) and correspondence (‘Try not to look at emails more than once. Take care of it then).”

At the end of the day, former staffers believe what finally compelled the board to remove Wen were successive waves of departures by both high-profile Planned Parenthood employees, and lower level ones. Wen’s hiring coincided with the beginning of the 2020 campaign cycle, and it is not unusual for Planned Parenthood to lose employees to political campaigns, but even that could not account for the number of employees who have fled the organization in recent months.

Wen, one former staffer told Rolling Stone, “was a key part of why I left Planned Parenthood. It was not an easy decision. It was something I cried over, and watched people who I learned a lot from, and who I truly respect have similar experiences… The work itself, especially in this moment in time, is so emotional. To be doing it for someone who seemed to be there to lift her own profile and who didn’t seem interested in talking to the people who were experts in it, was incredibly disheartening.” 

As with her hiring, Wen’s firing came at a critical moment for the organization. The day Wen announced she’d been removed was the same day the Trump administration’s Title X gag rule went into effect; Wen herself had previously singled out the Title X rule as one of the “biggest and most important fights” the organization faced. The rule prevents government funding from going to organizations that provide non-abortion medical services in the same clinics where abortions are performed. Historically, Planned Parenthood has provided medical services to some 40 percent of all Title X patients; the organization will lose some amount of funding and patients are, in turn, at risk of losing access to medical care under the new rule.

Wen declined to be interviewed for this piece, citing a high volume of media requests, but spokesperson fielding media inquires for her told Rolling Stone via email, “These are false and unverifiable accusations made for the purposes of deflecting from the true reasons for Dr. Wen’s departure, which were centered around philosophical differences and the direction of Planned Parenthood.”

That person, who would not give their name, continued: “The fact is Dr. Wen was making big changes and that made some people uncomfortable. The organization hired her to realign the organization and to bring effectiveness and efficiency to the staff. This should not have been a surprise to them as this is the direction she described to the board before they unanimously chose her.  She had to bring on staff aligned with her vision and who had public health expertise. She made major leadership changes, which were not always popular. Change in a complex organization like this is hard. The board knew that and should have stood by her as she implemented that vision.”

Planned Parenthood said Tuesday it was naming Alexis McGill Johnson acting president and CEO of both Planned Parenthood Federation of America and acting president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund. In a statement announcing her hire, Planned Parenthood touted her background as “a renowned social justice leader, lifelong political organizer, and a tireless advocate for reproductive rights and access to quality, affordable health care.”

In a statement, McGill Johnson said she intended to “facilitate a smooth leadership transition,” thanking Wen “for her service and her commitment to patients.”

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