Leana Wen, a 36-year old physician who used to be commissioner of health for Baltimore, has been selected as the new head of the organization. I have followed her career for some time and was pleased to hear that someone so concerned about social justice and a fearless advocate for it had taken on this job. As a child of immigrants who were poor, she knows how tough life is in the US if you lack money.
Now, it’s hard for Wen to pinpoint the pivotal moment when she realized that medicine was not just a matter of science but of social justice. Of course, there was her journey from China, but there was also the time in elementary school when she watched a neighborhood boy die of an asthma attack because his undocumented family was too scared to call 911. There was the woman she saw die in the ER after a botched abortion, the young mother without insurance who waited more than a year to have a breast lump examined and died of metastatic cancer, the middle-aged woman who couldn’t afford her blood-pressure medication and was paralyzed by a stroke. “I mean, there are dozens, hundreds, countless examples like that,” says Wen. “My patients are sick not just because of their illness, but because of so many other factors in our system that are making them ill. And I would not be the best doctor I can be if I did not also fight against these systemic injustices.”
Which is exactly what she did as commissioner of health for the city of Baltimore, where she instituted a program that reduced infant mortality by 38 percent, provided free eyeglasses to every public-school student who needed them, and saved nearly 3,000 lives by making the opioid-overdose antidote Narcan available over-the-counter to every resident in the city. She also sued the Trump administration — and won — when it cut funding for a sex-education program. Another suit, “for intentionally and willfully sabotaging the Affordable Health Care Act,” is still pending.
In her new role, Wen provides a clear signal that Planned Parenthood is, above all, not an advocacy group but a health care provider, serving 8,000 people in this country every day with services such as birth control, breast exams and STD screenings. But, as she well knows, access to health care requires activism. “We should not be singling out and stigmatizing one aspect of health care,” she says. “I know, as a physician, that reproductive health care is health care, that women’s health care is health care, that abortion is part of the full spectrum of reproductive health care and needs to be treated as the standard medical care that it is.” She’s heartened by the election of the 116th Congress, which was being sworn in the very day we spoke: “The last midterms, the American people, particularly women of color, rose up and made clear that as a country, we are pro-women, pro-reproductive health, and pro-reproductive rights.” As Trump tries to squeeze Planned Parenthood out of economic existence, and Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court threatens Roe v. Wade, Wen keeps this more-silent majority in mind. “We’re going on the offense,” she says. “We’re looking to expand.”
Good for her.