All abortion debates are eternal. Within the abortion-rights movement, there are long-standing tensions between the absolutists and the incrementalists, the uncompromising progressives and the cautious voices.
And right now, as in the rest of American politics, the unapologetically progressive voices are ascendant.
I recently reached out to three former Planned Parenthood presidents—Faye Wattleton, Pamela Maraldo, and Gloria Feldt—for their perspectives on the July 16 ouster of Dr. Leana Wen, whose tenure as president lasted just eight months. In on-the-record interviews, the echoes in the organization’s history were clear. The attacks on Planned Parenthood are not new, and neither are the debates over its identity. “I get a little amused at people who say, ‘Well, you know, what’s going on right now, isn’t this just awful?’” said Feldt, who led the organization from 1996 to 2005 and now coaches women on executive-leadership skills. Conservatives’ attempts to restrict abortion are “not that far different” from the past, she told me. “It’s been going on certainly for as long as I’ve been involved [in the abortion-rights movement], which is close to a half century.”
When Wattleton took over Planned Parenthood in 1978, the backlash against legal abortion was already beginning to take shape. A few years earlier, Congress had put in place its first ban on federal funding for abortion procedures, the Hyde Amendment. For several years afterward, abortion opponents fought to pass a constitutional amendment that would have superseded the Supreme Court’s 1973 opinion in Roe v. Wade. One of Wattleton’s first goals, she declared at a press conference, was to restore Medicaid coverage for abortions for poor women—something that is still a priority of the abortion-rights movement today. At the time, “it was hugely controversial within the organization, the concern being that this would imperil our federal funding,” Wattleton told me. “It’s really unbelievable, the conversation today versus the conversation then, which is almost exactly the same.”