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After Less Than A Year, Planned Parenthood Ousts Its President Leana Wen


What really happened at Planned Parenthood? The reproductive health organization is forever in the middle of a white-hot battle over abortion rights, and now it is in the middle of a leadership change. Dr. Leana Wen is out as president. People who follow the news may think, wait, didn't Planned Parenthood just recently get a new president? And you wouldn't be wrong because Dr. Wen did not serve all that long. NPR's Sarah McCammon covers reproductive rights and joins us now. Good morning.


INSKEEP: How does Wen say she was ousted?

MCCAMMON: Well, first of all, you're right. She was just there about 10 months, and she said on Twitter that she was pushed out after a secret meeting. She said that came after what she described as good faith negotiations over her exit. So she was planning to leave, but she didn't expect to leave in this way. She released a long letter after that in which she says she was on her way out over philosophical differences with Planned Parenthood.

At one point, she said she'd come there to work on a broad range of health care issues but that, quote, "the new board leadership has determined that the priority of Planned Parenthood moving forward is to double down on abortion rights advocacy." And Wen did go on to say that she understands the reasons for that shift given the political moment, and she'll do everything she can to ensure a smooth transition.

INSKEEP: Well, that's interesting because it suggests that there is a much larger issue at play here, that there's a big question about how this organization wants to confront the moment when many states are cracking down on abortion rights. What is Planned Parenthood saying about why she left?

MCCAMMON: There's been no official explanation from Planned Parenthood other than just to say she's out, has been replaced on an interim basis. And they thanked her for her service, wished her well. But I've spoken to several people close to the organization, Steve, who tell me a number of things.

They say there were issues with Wen's leadership style from the beginning, that she wasn't a great fit with the organization. A lot of key leaders and other staff left Planned Parenthood after Wen came in. And another factor I've been told is Wen's background as a public health official and a physician. Sources say she seemed more comfortable at times talking about a broader range of health issues than advocating for abortion rights, which she sort of indicates in her letter.


MCCAMMON: And this, again, is at a time when reproductive rights advocates feel very much under attack. I did reach out to Wen's team, her communications team, for a response. They released a statement to NPR that said she was making big changes, that she'd been hired to realign the organization and saying the board essentially knew who she was and should have stood by her. And they also referred me to several former, you know, professional colleagues and associates who praised her work and leadership style.

INSKEEP: Well, it is fair to ask. I mean, she was only hired 10 months ago. A lot has happened in 10 months. But it was approximately the same political moment. Why did they think in the beginning that she was the right person?

MCCAMMON: Right. Well, I've been told, again, by sources close to the organization that when she replaced Cecile Richards, the former president who was a longtime president, high-profile advocate for abortion rights, hiring a physician was seen as a good way to position abortion as part of the larger battle over health care, not just a political issue. But at the same time, this source said Wen and a lot of staff at Planned Parenthood saw Wen as essentially shying away from the abortion issue. And people at Planned Parenthood, many of them are very proud to advocate for that. And there were some frustrations, I'm told, about her willingness and ability to do that, again, in this moment.

INSKEEP: Is this an awkward moment for the organization to be casting about for new leadership?

MCCAMMON: I would say so, given the challenges we've seen to abortion rights at the state level, potential Supreme Court battles looming in the next couple of years. Heading into a presidential election, this is a pivotal time. There are a lot of battles on both sides of this issue right now. And I think it says a lot that the organization has chosen to so quickly replace its leader at this moment. That does tell you a lot about what was going on under the surface.

The interim leader is Alexis McGill Johnson, a longtime Planned Parenthood board member. I'm told she's well-liked. But she's going to have a lot of challenges ahead, and so will the new permanent director, whenever that person is chosen.

INSKEEP: Really interesting story. Thanks for your reporting on it, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sarah McCammon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.