Planned Parenthood president Leana Wen, an emergency room physician and former health commissioner of Baltimore, entered her high-profile role with extensive medical experience.
Yet nothing could have prepared her for the range and extremity of assaults waged by anti-choice politicians against reproductive rights that began almost as soon as she started.
Wen started in November 2018—a month after Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation pushed the court back to a conservative majority and signaled to anti-choice activists that the justices might overturn this case. Since then, there has been an unprecedented amount of state legislation being advanced to undermine Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that legalized abortion nationwide.
Following the wave of anti-choice bills recently signed by several governors, Planned Parenthood released a report declaring a "state of emergency for women’s health" in the U.S. It cites a Harvard Medical School analysis asserting that women were 50 percent more likely to die during childbirth in 2015 than in 1990; it also notes that Black women are three to four times more likely to die as a result of pregnancy than white women.
VICE: What strikes you about the states that are passing these extreme abortion bans?
Leana Wen: When we look at these extreme bans that are being passed and signed into law, the places they are being signed also happen to be places that have terrible health outcomes.
Alabama has the nation’s highest rate of cervical cancer. Then Alabama’s Governor Kay Ivey signs into law the most extreme abortion ban since Roe that criminalizes doctors for up to 99 years for performing safe, legal abortion care.
In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp signed into law six-week ban, which is before most people even know that they are pregnant. Georgia has the second-highest maternal mortality rate in the country. A pregnant person in Georgia has 10 times the likelihood of dying versus a pregnant person in California.
Then you look at Missouri, where all of this has been going down with government weaponizing the licensing process to close us down. There is a syphilis outbreak that’s raging in Missouri where the rate of congenital syphilis is higher than its been in nearly two decades. Five counties are facing a 1,000 percent increase in syphilis.
Instead of trying to increase access to healthcare to combat these challenges, it’s just shocking that these governors and anti-women’s healthcare politicians are instead actively trying to take healthcare away from people.
People who are wealthy, people with privilege have always been able to get the best medical care because they can fly somewhere else to get that care. Now, it’s not right that they have to, but they can.
Those who are most affected by any restrictions on healthcare are those who are already the most vulnerable. It’s those who already face the greatest share and burden of disparities and health inequities. That’s people of color, individuals with low income, LGBTQ people, and people who live in more geographically isolated areas. The effects of these policies will be worsening these already existing disparities. I think it also needs to be said that right now in this country, so many people already live in a post-Roe world.
There has always been a battle around the language used to describe abortion rights supporters and opponents, with anti-reproductive-health politicians and advocates calling themselves “pro-life.” What are your thoughts on that term?
As a doctor, I know that keeping people unhealthy is a tool of oppression, and that stigmatizing reproductive healthcare is a tool of misogyny. We just have to call it out for what it is.
People across the country understand the coded words that anti-reproductive healthcare politicians are using. We are seeing for ourselves how what they are doing has nothing to do with protecting people’s rights or health.
It’s actually the exact opposite. They want us to go back in time. If they have their way, our children will have fewer rights than we do.
We see their tactics for what they are. Instead of working on improving public health outcomes, they are focused on taking healthcare away.
They don’t get to call themselves "pro-life" when they are taking healthcare and essential services away from the most vulnerable individuals in their own communities.
You mentioned that the bans are a tool of misogyny and we know that they disproportionately affect communities of color. Do you also believe they are a tool of racism and white supremacy?
Well, I think there was that picture of the 25 white men who passed the law in Alabama restricting abortion access to anytime in pregnancy. They did this with no exceptions for race or incest, even after hearing the heart-wrenching stories of people who suffered sexual assault.
That should say everything about the times we are in.
Don’t forget that 77 percent of Americans stand strongly with us and agree that Roe v. Wade should remain. American people will know who is on their side, and who is not, and we will hold them accountable. If they try to take away our healthcare and our rights, we will take away their jobs.
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