In a letter to colleagues, Dr Leana Wen explained she was stepping down as president of the largest abortion provider in America “because of philosophical differences about the direction and future of Planned Parenthood.” Wen wanted to lead an organization that sounded more like the glossy brochure in the reception area, focused more on reproductive health care. Instead, Wen inveighed, her board wanted “to double down on abortion rights advocacy.”
The philosophical differences really aren’t that philosophical. Yes, it is true that Wen enraged some progressive staff members for refusing to use “trans-inclusive” language, but this was not so much based on principle so much as because it would not play well in middle America. Nor was Wen philosophically opposed to abortion. To the contrary, Wen continually reiterated her support for abortion, even as she repeatedly downplayed it in the midst of increasingly heated political battles.
In a sad op-ed grieving her own miscarriage, Wen erroneously connected her natural “pregnancy loss” to abortion, suggesting that new state laws in Alabama, Missouri, and Georgia would investigate women who had miscarriages to determine whether they had, in fact, had an abortion. It was a non sequitur in terms of logic, but it had just the right amount of rhetorical slippage to make abortion sound more “acceptable” to middle America.
Wen very carefully and systematically avoided making arguments in favor of abortion. But her defenses of abortion were always indirect. Even in her Washington Post op-ed defending abortion against new state restrictions earlier this month, Wen wrote “if we truly care about the health of women, children and families, we must commit to policies that provide pregnant women with the care, humanity and dignity that all people deserve.” Such statements, which in a different context could have been written by those legislators passing heartbeat bills, proved to her board that she was not the one “to double down on abortion.” Their differences were not philosophical at all. They were differences of political strategy.
Planned Parenthood had hired a physician eight months ago to promote the conceit that they are committed to healthcare. That seemed like a reasonable political and public relations strategy at the time. But with blue states running campaigns for infanticide, and red states passing heartbeat bills, Planned Parenthood could no longer afford the fancy picture of themselves as healthcare providers. They fired Dr Wen precisely because they know very well that they are not really in the healthcare business. They are in the abortion business. It took the board the length of a pregnancy to realize that they didn’t need a doctor, and they didn’t need someone who could soften their messaging for middle America — they needed someone who could fight for that sacrament of their whole enterprise: abortion itself.
This isn’t the first time Planned Parenthood has tried, and failed, to moderate their image. In 1992 they hired a nurse, Pamela Maraldo, to put the emphasis on “healthcare” rather than abortion. But it turns out whenever they do this, abortion rates stagnate, as they did under Maraldo. By 1995, Maraldo was out and Gloria Feldt, a Planned Parenthood career veteran who more than doubled the abortion rate during her tenure, was in.
Planned Parenthood’s philosophical commitment to abortion requires a more vigorous political activism than most healthcare providers, such as Maraldo or Wen, can offer. The violence of abortion cannot rest for long with the softened image Wen sought to project. It requires an abortionist-in-chief. That’s what Cecile Richards was, and that’s likely what they’ll look for again, even as they face new political headwinds that favor life.
What does Wen’s departure mean? What does it mean for those middle Americans she didn’t want to “isolate”? What does it mean philosophically and politically? It means that Planned Parenthood knows something Wen didn’t — that the masks have all come off now. There can be no more subtlety about “reproductive health care.” Middle America is perfectly aware that Planned Parenthood is in the abortion business, and increasingly voters are coming to see that abortion stops a beating human heart. This is why the two political options have become crystal clear: infanticide bills or heartbeat bills. Dr Wen wanted to steer a middle path. But philosophically, there is no middle way between life and death. Americans must choose.
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