dr. leana wen
Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Feeling anxious about politicians’ obsessive—and dangerous—push to restrict women’s access to vital reproductive health care in the United States? Us, too. From the Trump administration’s terrible birth control policy to the Supreme Court confirmation of Trump’s so-called “pro-life” pick Brett Kavanaugh to the countless laws introduced in states across the country systematically attacking Roe v. Wade, politically powerful, rich, white men appear hellbent on turning us all into handmaids.

But women and people who can become pregnant are fighting back, including the new president of the Parenthood Federation of America, Dr. Leana Wen. As soon as she stepped into the role in November 2018, Dr. Wen went straight to work, embarking on a 20-state listening tour at Planned Parenthood affiliates nationwide, opening up about her cervical cancer diagnosis at 27, and debuting Roo, a teen-friendly, automated chatbot designed to answer urgent questions about sex, relationships, and bodies.

As a practicing physician and former Baltimore City Health Commissioner, Dr. Wen is committed to removing the stigma associated with reproductive health care. She wants to change the way we think about reproductive health care by redefining it in words even the toddler-in-chief can understand: reproductive health care is health care.

HelloGiggles caught up with Dr. Wen just as Planned Parenthood’s #ThisIsHealthcare campaign kicked off, and we picked her brain about what inspired her to pursue reproductive health care advocacy, how restricting access to critical health services perpetuates inequality, and what keeps her motivated in the fight for accessible, affordable, stigma-free reproductive health care for all.

HelloGiggles: You’re a practicing physician, and you also served as Baltimore City Health Commissioner for nearly four years. Today, you are president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. What inspired you to pursue reproductive health care advocacy?

Dr. Leana Wen: When I was in medical school, I lived a block away from a Planned Parenthood. I would walk every morning to my rotations at the hospital, and I would see patients going in and out of the hospital to get health care. I would go into the hospital as a health care provider and deliver health care. And people just went into the hospital and got health care. Then, [on my way] home, I would see the same patients, for the most part, trying to enter Planned Parenthood for health care and they would have to go through lines of protesters, people holding up signs, shouting at them, preventing them from going in, shaming them, scaring them, and stigmatizing them for getting health care. And stigmatizing and putting fear into the providers who were there to deliver health care. And I thought, how is it that we are treating one aspect of health care so differently than everything else? Why is reproductive health care—women’s health care—siloed out, stigmatized, and attacked, when it is health care? And that’s what drives me in my work here at Planned Parenthood.

HG: In a powerful op-ed published shortly after you assumed leadership of Planned Parenthood, you wrote, “The threat to women’s health is the greatest health catastrophe of our time.” What makes the issue of women’s accessibility to affordable reproductive health care so urgent?

LW: Let’s look at what’s happening around the country. In the last seven years, there have been over 400 laws that have been passed that directly restrict abortion access and reproductive rights. There are seven states where there is only one provider who is able to perform abortions for our patients. [Some patients] have to drive many hours in order to see a provider and face many barriers to care that would not exist for any other aspect of health care. The Trump administration is also about to finalize a rule that would, among other things, gag doctors, forbid doctors from telling our patients about abortion, even if our patients are asking about it. [And] we are facing a situation where, in the Supreme Court, we could face further restrictions. There are over 20 cases around reproductive rights that are one step away from the Supreme Court, which means that in the next year Roe v. Wade could be overturned or further eroded, meaning that one in three women of reproductive age in this country—which is 25 million women—could be living in states where abortion is outlawed or banned.

As a doctor, I see what happens when women can’t access health care. The cost is women’s lives. I treated a woman [once] who waited more than a year before she got a lump in her breast examined, and as a result of that, by the time she came in, she had metastatic cancer and she died not long after I saw her. The cost of these political attacks, the cost of politicians trying to bar women from seeking health care, is people’s lives. And that’s what we have to keep in mind. That it’s people’s lives that we’re fighting for.

HG: Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to push dangerous policies that further restrict access to affordable health care, including reproductive health care critical to women.

LW: [In 2018,] less than 24 hours after the American people elected a pro-reproductive health majority in the House of Representatives, the Trump-Pence administration finalized rules that would allow employers to deny women coverage for birth control. I can’t believe it’s 2019 and we’re still debating whether women should have access to birth control. The Trump administration has also cut funding for evidence-based, comprehensive sex education programs. Actually, [when] I was the health commissioner in Baltimore City, we sued the Trump administration because they cut our sex education programs. And we won, restoring funding to teens and youth in our city.

The Trump administration has also put out rules to scare [away] immigrants [from seeking] health care. When my family and I first immigrated to this country, we depended on Medicaid, Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), [and] other services that allowed us to secure our future. And now, the Trump administration wants to take away that lifeline that so many immigrants need in order to make it in this country and create a better life for our families.

The attacks on reproductive health care, they’re on women, they’re on immigrants, they’re on LGBTQ people, they’re on people of color, they’re on low-income people. They’re really on all of us. And that’s why we need to speak out, we need to fight back on these policies, and to understand, too, that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us, and the consequence is people’s lives.

HG: And marginalized people’s lives, in particular. It’s like you tweeted last year, “Keeping people unhealthy is a tool of oppression.” Can you describe how harmful policies like you mentioned—that deny people access to affordable health care—perpetuate inequality?

LW: If people aren’t healthy, they can’t participate fully in the workplace. They may have trouble caring for their families. They may have trouble getting their families’ basic needs tended to, like food and shelter. And [by denying people access to affordable health care,] we are perpetuating cycles of poverty and oppression. Keeping people unhealthy also is a way to keep [people] away from the polls, which is another way of abusing power.

There are profound disparities when it comes to health care [and] health outcomes. [And] it’s the people who face the greatest barriers to care who are the most affected by the policies that we talked about. We know that wealthy, white people of privilege have always been able to get the health care that they need. It’s people of color, it’s people who are low-income, it’s immigrants, it’s LGBTQ people, it’s people who have been in marginalized communities who are going to bear the greatest brunt of these policies. And that’s what’s at stake. And that’s why we need to call out that there are systemic injustices. We need to call out the problems of disparities, call out racism, sexism, homophobia. All these injustices are public health issues.

HG: As the newly appointed president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, how do you hope to address these considerable challenges to securing access to affordable reproductive health care for all?

LW: I have a three-pillar vision. The first is to provide health care. I am myself a recipient of health care from Planned Parenthood. I was a patient. When I wanted to have information about birth control, I knew that Planned Parenthood was a safe place I could come to for non-judgmental education and information.

Second is to protect access to health and to fight to protect access to reproductive rights around the country. We are fighting back and defending access to health care. We are also working on every level to proactively push for legislation that would ensure health care equity around the country.

And the third is to expand. Because we know there is huge unmet need, [and] that there are profound health disparities. We look at maternal mortality as an example. The U.S. is the only industrialized country where the rate of women [who] die in childbirth is actually increasing. We’re seeing that African American women are nearly four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women and 40% more likely to die from breast cancer than white women. There are profound inequities, profound injustices, profound disparities, and we need to be fighting back with everything we have to expand access, expand our impact, and expand our reach.

HG: What do you hope the future of health care access—and reproductive health care access, in particular—looks like?

LW: I think about this in relation to my son. I have a 15-month-old son, Eli, and I think about the future I would want for him, and it’s a future where all people—men, women, all people—have the same rights as anyone else. That everyone has the right and the freedom to something as basic as bodily autonomy, and a future where all aspects of health care—including reproductive health care—is understood as the standard health care that it is. And that all health care is a right that’s guaranteed to all, not a privilege available only to some.

But it’s not going to get there on its own. It will only get there if we all do everything we can, fight with everything that we have, and work for a world to promote health equity and social justice. I think a lot about how so many people are energized and motivated because of what’s happening in our country. The cavalry isn’t coming. We are the ones that we have been waiting for.