(AP) — The president of Planned Parenthood, Dr. Leana Wen, was ousted Tuesday after just eight months on the job. Also Tuesday, the organization said it will defy President Trump’s order that it stop referring patients to abortion providers.
Wen, in a Twitter post, said she learned that Planned Parenthood’s board “ended my employment at a secret meeting.” She indicated the board wanted more emphasis on political advocacy, while she sought to prioritize Planned Parenthood’s role as a provider of health care services ranging from birth control to cancer screenings.
“We were engaged in good faith negotiations about my departure based on philosophical differences over the direction and future of Planned Parenthood,” Wen said. “I am stepping down sooner than I had hoped.”
Her departure came as the Trump administration announced it would start enforcing new rules that ban taxpayer-funded family planning clinics from referring women for abortions. Planned Parenthood, the largest recipient of those funds, said it will not abide by those rules.
Without elaboration, Planned Parenthood announced Wen’s departure via a Twitter post, thanking her for her service and wishing her luck going forward.
It also announced that Alexis McGill Johnson, co-director of a research consortium called the Perception Institute, will serve as acting president of Planned Parenthood and its political wing, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, while a search for new permanent leader is conducted.
Wen, a Chinese immigrant who fled her native country when she was a child, took over as Planned Parenthood’s leader in November, succeeding Cecile Richards, who had been president since 2006. Wen had been Baltimore’s health commissioner since 2015
Wen’s tenure coincided with major challenges for the U.S. abortion-rights movement, in which Planned Parenthood has long played a major role. Emboldened by a strengthened right-wing presence on the U.S. Supreme Court, several Republican-controlled state legislatures have enacted laws this year to ban most abortions. None of the laws have taken effect, but backers hope they might lead the high court to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that established a nationwide right to abortion.
The Trump administration has moved to withhold federal family planning funds from clinics, including Planned Parenthood’s, that refer women for abortions.
With about 400 clinics, Planned Parenthood is the largest provider in the federal family planning program for low-income women, known as Title X. The program does not pay for abortions, but until now clinics had been able to refer women for the procedure. Planned Parenthood clinics have long been a target for religious and social conservatives because the clinics separately provide abortions.
Jacqueline Ayers, Planned Parenthood’s top lobbyist, said its clinics will stop accepting federal money and tap emergency funding as they press Congress and the courts to reverse the administration’s ban.
Title X serves about 4 million women annually through independent clinics. Taxpayers provide about $260 million a year in grants to clinics, but that money by law cannot be used to pay for abortions.
In a letter to her colleagues at Planned Parenthood, Wen said she had believed its primary mission was to be a health care organization, more so than an advocacy organization.
“With the landscape changing dramatically in the last several months and the right to safe, legal abortion care under attack like never before, I understand the shift in the Board’s prioritization,” Wen wrote.
Federally funded family planning clinics, including Planned Parenthood, are defying the Trump administration’s ban on referring women for abortions, drawing a line against what they say amounts to keeping patients in the dark about legitimate health care options.
Ayers, the lobbyist, said Tuesday: “We are not going to comply with a regulation that would require health care providers to not give full information to their patients. We believe as a health care provider it is wrong to withhold health care information from patients.”
The fallout from the confrontation between the Trump administration and the clinics remains to be seen, but groups including the American Medical Association have been warning that many low-income women could lose access to basic services such as contraception.
The Department of Health and Human Services formally notified the clinics Monday that it will begin enforcing the new regulation banning abortion referrals, along with a requirement that clinics maintain separate finances from facilities that provide abortions. The rule is being challenged in federal court, but the administration says there is currently no legal obstacle to enforcing it.
It’s part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to remake government policy on reproductive health.
In a statement, HHS did not address Planned Parenthood’s decision, but said the agency is committed to working with clinics so they can comply with the new rules. While abortion referrals are prohibited, HHS noted that clinicians can still offer neutral “nondirective counseling” on abortion.
Planned Parenthood acted after its Illinois affiliate said it would not comply with the rule and an independent provider, Maine Family Planning, announced it was withdrawing from the federal program. Planned Parenthood of Illinois said it would accept program funds again if the rule were lifted.
The family planning rule is being challenged around the country in court cases that have yet to resolve the core issues involved. However, a nationwide preliminary injunction that had blocked the administration was recently set aside, allowing HHS to begin enforcing the rule.
Other administration regulations tangled up in court would allow employers to opt out of offering free birth control to women workers on the basis of religious or moral objections and would grant health care professionals wider leeway to opt out of procedures that offend their religious or moral scruples.
The AMA is among the professional groups opposed to the administration’s policy, saying it could affect low-income women’s access to basic medical care, including birth control, cancer screenings and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.
Religious conservatives see the regulation as a means to end what they call an indirect taxpayer subsidy of abortion providers.
Although abortion remains politically divisive, the U.S. abortion rate has dropped significantly, from about 29 per 1,000 women of reproductive age in 1980 to about 15 per 1,000 in 2014. Better contraception, fewer unintended pregnancies and state restrictions may have played a role, according to a recent scientific report. Polls show most Americans do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion.
The Trump administration’s policy echoes a Reagan-era regulation that barred clinics from even discussing abortion with women. It never went into effect as written, although the Supreme Court ruled it was appropriate.
The policy was rescinded under President Bill Clinton, and a new rule took effect requiring “nondirective” counseling to include a full range of options for women. The Trump administration is rolling back the Clinton requirement.