The last time I saw Dr. Leana Wen, she stood on the bimah at Beth Am Synagogue to talk about the national melting pot. She was also saying goodbye to Baltimore to head up Planned Parenthood of America.
The last time the entire nation saw her, she was saying goodbye to Planned Parenthood.
The first farewell was her decision. The second was not. She left her job as Baltimore City Health Commissioner to take on national issues of women’s health, including the latest struggles over abortion that have consumed Planned Parenthood.
She left there over the politics of that fight. She was deemed not strident enough.
“While I am passionately committed to abortion access,” she wrote on July 21 in the New York Times, “I do not view it as a stand-alone issue.”
Those of us who remember her as city health commissioner, or recall her words from that winter night at Beth Am in 2017, know that the loss is Planned Parenthood’s – and, ultimately, the country’s.
Dr. Wen is a woman of intelligence and insight and rare sensitivity. That night at Beth Am was put together by David Simon, the writer and creator of “The Wire.” It was billed as a “City of Immigrants” rally, in response to some of the early White House efforts to demonize those desperate to enter this country.
Dr. Wen talked about her own journey here. She was born in Shanghai to parents who were political dissidents. In her early years, she only knew her father in installments. Much of the time, he was behind bars for saying things the government deemed subversive.
The family reached America when Leana was 8. They asked for political asylum. When their visa ran out, they were about to be declared illegals. But then, with mere days to spare, their application came through.
“In some ways, my story is unique,” she told the overflow crowd at Beth Am that night, “but it’s also the story of multitudes of refugees. … This is not them, the immigrants, versus us, the Americans. They are us.”
But the struggle over immigration is only one of the battles this White House has ignited. Nearly half a century after abortion was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Trump administration’s attorneys have pecked away at its validity, gaining courage with a spate of newly appointed conservative judges.
When Wen took the job as Planned Parenthood’s president and chief executive, she knew the fight would be rough. But she wasn’t anticipating the intensity of in-fighting among her own colleagues.
“Philosophical differences,” she called it, in the piece she wrote for the New York Times, “over the best way to protect reproductive health.”
She believes the debate over abortion rights should be waged “not [as] a political issue, but a health care one. … I believed we could expand support for Planned Parenthood – and ultimately for abortion access – by finding common ground with the large majority of Americans who can unite behind the goal of improving the health and well-being of women and children.”
Instead, she drew flak for “not prioritizing abortion enough.”
Wen acknowledges the current political pressure on an issue many Americans assumed had been settled years ago. In recent months, Wen notes, “Seven states have passed laws banning abortion before many women even know that they are pregnant. Just this past Monday, the Trump administration announced that it would start enforcing a gag rule that would prohibit doctors and nurses working in federally funded clinics from referring patients to abortion care.”
In Wen’s view, those are important fights – but they’re not the only ones. By stressing Planned Parenthood’s other roles – such as breast exams, cervical cancer screenings and family planning – she believed she would “counter those who associate the organization with only abortion and use this misconception to attack its mission.
“I wanted to tell the story of all its services – and in so doing, to normalize abortion as the health care that it is.”
The loss is Planned Parenthood’s. And it’s a loss to all those who imagined themselves protected by a legal decision written nearly half a century ago, but – like immigration – has been resurrected as a deeply divisive political issue.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).