Planned Parenthood’s Never-Ending Identity Crisis

Throughout its history, the organization has been split on whether abortion should be at the center of its public identity. The recent ouster of its president, Dr. Leana Wen, is a sign that the progressive wing of the abortion-rights movement is ascendant.

Dr. Leana Wen, with megaphone, was ousted from Planned Parenthood after just eight months as president. (James Lawler Duggan / Reuters)

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 For several years afterward, abortion opponents fought to pass a constitutional amendment that would have superseded the Supreme Court’s 1973 opinion in Roe v. Wade.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.”

During her tenure, Wattleton built a reputation as an eloquent and ubiquitous defender of abortion. She successfully pushed the organization to take an aggressive stance in favor of abortion rights—sometimes to the chagrin of local affiliates, who feared public condemnation and retribution from lawmakers. In 1989, Wattleton oversaw the creation of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the organization’s advocacy arm, which promotes pro-abortion-rights candidates and mobilizes voters. But she rejects the idea that Planned Parenthood has politicized abortion.

“The mischaracterization of somehow, Planned Parenthood making this a political issue is astonishing to me,” she told me. “There is nothing that the organization would prefer, that they would like to do more, than to be left alone to provide services to people who want them and ask for them.” Asking Planned Parenthood to step out of politics is like asking the organization to simply avoid its attackers, she said, and downplaying abortion is a way of perpetuating shame. It sends a message to women that “you’re doing something that’s naughty, that’s bad,” she said. “I am aghast that anyone at the top of Planned Parenthood would even counter such a message, let alone speak it.”

And yet, Maraldo, Wattleton’s successor, did exactly that: She tried to steer the organization away from its association with abortion and cultivate its reputation as a mainstream health-care provider. At the time, in the early 1990s, Planned Parenthood had just won a major victory at the Supreme Court, which reaffirmed the fundamental principles of Roe in its decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Bill Clinton had just won the White House, and the Democratic Party held both chambers of Congress. The possibility of sweeping health-care reforms seemed real, and Maraldo, a former nurse, wanted to make sure Planned Parenthood would have a voice in those debates. She also gave a number of interviews arguing that abortion should not be the center of Planned Parenthood’s identity.

“Abortion, abortion, abortion—it’s like waving red flags in front of a bull. We do so much else,” Maraldo told me recently. At its core, she said, the fight over abortion is “really about reproductive control and privacy.” While she believes abortion should be safe and available to women who need it, she saw—and sees—prevention as the main mission of Planned Parenthood. According to the organization’s own data, that’s true: Abortion accounts for only 3.4 percent of the services offered at the national network of Planned Parenthood affiliates, while consultations on contraception and sexually transmitted diseases make up 75 percent. In 2017, Planned Parenthood affiliates performed 332,757 abortions.

In recent years, the abortion-rights movement has turned away from Clinton’s argument that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” instead promoting campaigns to “shout your abortion” and creating ice-cream flavors with names such as “Rocky Roe v. Wade.” This kind of rhetoric “would not be my choice,” Maraldo, who now leads Girls Inc. of New York, told me. “I don’t think labeling having an abortion with pride is necessarily going to resonate with most Americans. I think the American people, at the end of the day, are mainstream centrists. I think the polarities have taken over. And I think that for a lot of Americans around the dinner table, it’s a problem.”

The strategy Maraldo articulated in the ’90s, outlining a vision of Planned Parenthood as a general health-care provider, eventually led to her ouster from the organization. Her successor, Feldt, represented a return to Planned Parenthood’s earlier era. Before taking her national role in 1996, Feldt led affiliates in Arizona and Texas. During her decade at the head of the national organization, Feldt learned an important lesson, she told me: “Controversy is your friend. When something is controversial, it means it’s important enough that people are paying attention. You can take that energy, and you can use it to propel yourself forward.”

Feldt does not believe Planned Parenthood needs to choose between being a health-care provider and a political advocate. “I think it is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time,” she said. But in the years since she left the organization, she believes it has “kept narrowing what reproductive rights are all about … to call it health care.” Feldt, who entered adulthood during the civil-rights movement, thinks Planned Parenthood’s mission is about “whether women will be able to function as full and equal citizens. It’s not about birth control. It’s not about abortion. It’s about who we are as women.” The organization has been debating between its role as a health-care provider and an advocacy organization “since Margaret Sanger’s day, 100-and-some-odd years ago,” she told me, referring to the woman who founded the organization’s precursor. These same debates were still raging when Feldt arrived. “But the truth is, it’s all inseparable,” she said. “And when you try to make yourself smaller, you will always get pushed into a defensive corner.”

Over the past 40 years of personnel drama at the top of Planned Parenthood, one theme has remained constant: The hard-charging political warriors have tended to last longer than the women who tried to neutralize Planned Parenthood’s image. Cecile Richards, who succeeded Feldt, was a savvy political strategist who was nursed on red-state politics: Her mother, Ann, stands as the last Democrat and last woman to serve as governor of Texas. Richards led the organization for 12 years, expanding both its services and its donor base.

By contrast, Wen, who was hired in late 2018, believed Planned Parenthood’s future will be most secure if it is seen as a health-care provider rather than a political actor. During her tenure, she reached out to self-identified pro-life groups and those who “wrestle with abortion’s moral complexities,” she claimed in a recent New York Times op-ed, something she described as the “greatest area of tension” between her and her staff. Her staff says she was pushed out because of bad management, but she maintains this was the ultimate reason: Right now, there is no space in the abortion-rights movement for those who wish to compromise. (Wen declined to be interviewed on the record for this story.)

“If you’re looking at where’s the energy in the pro-choice movement right now, it’s definitely the more progressive or more extreme vision, depending on your point of view, of what pro-choice advocacy means,” says Mary Ziegler, a professor of law at Florida State University who specializes in the legal history of abortion. On both sides of the abortion debate, “people who think the political moment is one in which principled, sweeping stands will play better than incremental, pragmatic ones are ascendant.”

For abortion advocates with a long view of history, this internal push and pull over the movement’s strategy is not surprising. Wattleton, Maraldo, and Feldt all reached adulthood before Roe was decided. While the Trump administration and the recent wave of state-level anti-abortion legislation have alarmed them, they also see progress for their cause. “We no longer have to bring in diaphragms under the cover of night illegally for women,” Wattleton said. “I think the organization needs to remain fearless. There is a price to pay for standing on principle … But in the long run, there is an enormous amount of respect that will be generated if it does so.”