Why you should care
Planned Parenthood’s firing of Leana Wen exposes its central contradiction over health care.
Home pregnancy tests were still somewhat unreliable back in 1991. So a nervous young couple went to a Planned Parenthood, one of the few places where they could get a free ultrasound at the time. The man and woman were holding hands as the nurse told them, “I’m sorry to say that you are pregnant.”
“Yeah?” the man asked happily. “Yeah!” The couple cheered. It took the nurse a second to understand. “Oh, you’re happy!”
That’s how my mom and dad learned I was on the way. My parents, newly religious and somewhat pro-life (it’s complicated, like most Americans’ views on abortion), were not the clients you might expect to see at a Planned Parenthood clinic. But it was an example of the organization’s legitimate health care offerings, and the way such services create a bridge across the ideological divide.
Could Planned Parenthood convert its critics with a message that’s not centered on abortion?
This is especially relevant following Planned Parenthood’s decision in July to replace Leana Wen, the first doctor to lead it in half a century, after just eight short months. Why the boot? “Philosophical differences” stemming from Wen wanting to stress health care services — like my parents received — to help normalize support for Planned Parenthood and, ultimately, abortion access. As she wrote in The New York Times, she wanted to find 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.”
The split highlighted a contradiction conservatives have long pointed out: that the organization touts its health care credentials as a shield while using abortion politics as a rallying cry. It also consolidates the crucial decision Planned Parenthood faces going forward: Should it try to match the intensity of the religious right, which has been emboldened by a conservative majority in the Supreme Court and a growing body of science backing their claims? Or should it try to win America’s hearts and minds, a strategy that can only succeed by de-politicizing abortion?
By letting Wen go, Planned Parenthood chose the first option. This is understandable. After all, access to abortion this past year has been under attack, with seven states passing heartbeat laws that in some cases ban abortions after just six weeks (often before women even know they are pregnant). Trying to muster support, abortion providers flood the news with apocalyptic statements: that the selection of a single Supreme Court justice, for example, will lead to the absolute abolition of abortion in America. Anything but a full-throated response could concede ground where there is little left to give, they warn.
The strategy inspires devotees but pushes the abortion movement to extremes. A recent leaked NARAL Pro-Choice America memo, for example, included bans on saying that abortions should be safe and legal. Virginia Democrats rallied behind their governor — he of later blackface infamy — who defended infanticide. A month later, 44 of 47 Senate Democrats blocked the Senate from voting on a bill requiring doctors to take care of a would-be aborted infant born alive. Such positions are not mainstream.
It may be time for another look at option two.
Could Planned Parenthood convert its critics with a message that’s not centered on abortion? As Wen put it, she wanted to “tell the story of all its services — and in so doing, to normalize abortion as the health care it is.”
The potential is there. A majority of Americans think abortion should be legal in some fashion and don’t want Roe overturned. More importantly, a Marist Poll released in June showed that roughly half of those who self-identify as pro-life support abortion either within the first three months of pregnancy or in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother. What they don’t support is unfettered abortion — only 15 percent of Americans believe it should be allowed “at any point” in pregnancy.
Americans are generally sympathetic to the need for health care for their neighbors, particularly in remote areas as rural hospitals shutter and adequate insurance is hardly a given. But if Planned Parenthood was more commonly recognized as the place where neighbors can receive cancer screenings and HIV tests, perhaps critics would stop seeing it as the face of extremism. If abortion really was only 3 percent of what Planned Parenthood did, Americans could more easily tune out the critical noise.
Language is important, and the way you speak to those whose minds you are trying to change shows your level of respect for their beliefs and values. Make an argument for Planned Parenthood, in other words, that appeals to conservatives too.
Explosive rhetoric about abortion will continue on the right, no matter what. But by emphasizing health care, and dampening the political heat, the organization could bring people in like my parents who otherwise would never have walked through the door. Strict abortion opponents may not change their minds, but sitting next to patients could help a moderate section of America appreciate the organization’s role in helping women face difficult medical situations.
That would be progress, and Wen understood how opening that door could lead to a bevy of other more significant advances. Instead, it’ll be the great missed opportunity for Planned Parenthood, which has instead chosen to double down on the politics of destruction — a tactic their opponents are accused of embracing.