Former Planned Parenthood CEO On Leadership Upheaval
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
In July of 1995, the opening paragraph of a New York Times article read, quote, "at a time when both abortion rights and federal financing of family planning are under attack in Congress, Planned Parenthood, which has long led the fight for both, is in upheaval." That story marked the departure of Planned Parenthood's leader at the time, a woman with a medical background whose philosophy ran afoul of the organization then.
If that sounds familiar, it may be because this week, Planned Parenthood announced the departure of its most recent president, Dr. Leana Wen. Wen has said she was forced out over philosophical differences with the organization, including her desire to expand Planned Parenthood's focus to a broader array of health issues. Almost exactly 24 years ago, Pamela Maraldo resigned over her own differences with Planned Parenthood. She has a Ph.D. in nursing, and she's now CEO of the nonprofit group Girls Inc. Of New York City. Maraldo joins us now from our New York bureau.
PAMELA MARALDO: Hello.
MCCAMMON: Now, the New York Times report that described your resignation in 1995 said that sources at the time said you had aroused opposition with your, quote, "emphasis on reshaping Planned Parenthood into a broad health organization that could compete in the era of managed care" - a focus that some of the group's affiliates felt would inevitably diminish their role as advocates for abortion rights and low-income women's access to health care.
Now, this week, in a letter explaining her ouster from Planned Parenthood, Dr. Leana Wen said she had come to the organization to work on a broad range of health care issues but that, quote, "the new board leadership has determined that the priority of Planned Parenthood moving forward is to double down on abortion rights advocacy." She's also said in an op-ed for The New York Times that she wanted to depoliticize abortion but that her approach seemed at odds with the direction the board wanted to go. What does this say about the trajectory of not just Planned Parenthood but also the abortion rights movement?
MARALDO: Certainly everybody would agree that reproductive rights are hanging the balance right now. It's a tough time, and there are two schools of thought. I think that the leadership at Planned Parenthood has to do what it thinks is right. I don't think there's a right or wrong. For my part, I would do what I did, you know, last time around.
I think that when you look at the number of young people and poor women in the country that don't have adequate health care, and you look at not the polarity in the debate but what women need on a day-to-day basis, it's really rare that poor women have just one problem. It's always accompanied by depression or hypertension or diabetes. So a public health physician who is a commissioner of health like Dr. Wen is going to see the world through that lens. I mean, she took an oath to do that. And similarly for a nurse, someone like me, you see the world in terms of health care delivery.
I think there is an argument to be made that the president of Planned Parenthood has to be strong in the advocacy arena right now when the media is so ever-present in all of our social issues - and certainly abortion's at the top of that list. I think you have to be a strong advocate for reproductive rights, there's no question about it - reproductive control and privacy, as Justice Ginsburg recently said. So we have to speak up and make sure that line in the sand is maintained, especially now with the Supreme Court having the constitution it has.
On the other hand, you could argue that, strategically, moving in the direction of broader health care will mitigate against, will, you know, help fight that fight in a much more integrated way, in a way that's much more - that the American people would be receptive to.
MCCAMMON: And you talk about these two schools of thought, about how political to be versus how focused on health care, at least in terms of messaging. Is that a split that's always been there within Planned Parenthood? Or is it just an old issue that was kind of dormant and has resurfaced, do you think?
MARALDO: I would say that your quote in the beginning was accurate. It's resurfaced because I think they hired a physician. But it's always dormant. And the fact is, their instincts were right, I believe, to hire a physician, a public health physician, because at the end of the day, if it weren't a health care delivery network, they would be NARAL. And there is a great deal of credibility because Planned Parenthood does deliver other health services and an array of health services like, you know, prenatal care and pap tests and breast cancer screening and immunizations. Planned Parenthood has always provided a wide array of health care services. And so they can't be de-emphasized It's got to be based on women's health and what they need.
MCCAMMON: You reference NARAL, of course, which is an abortion rights advocacy organization.
MCCAMMON: How do you think the mission of Planned Parenthood is and should be different from a group like NARAL and some of the others that do similar work?
MARALDO: I think that's the point. Planned Parenthood delivers a wide array of services. And I think that - not that they don't want to be good, strong voices and advocates for reproductive rights. I think, though, that there's got to be a parallel concern about the health care of women in general and the services they deliver. So I had women come up to me and say, you're so concerned about whether I'm going to have another baby or not. Why don't you be more concerned about my prenatal care or the adequate, you know, nutrition? And I say, as a matter of fact, I am, and we are.
MCCAMMON: Dr. Wen's departure after less than a year at Planned Parenthood came in a week when the Trump administration said it would start enforcing federal family planning rules that in effect cut a substantial amount of funding to Planned Parenthood.
MCCAMMON: You know, given that kind of landscape, how much of a role should the organization play, though, in lobbying against these kinds of policies that directly affect their health care mission?
MARALDO: Well, that's what's tricky. And that, they really do have to speak up now. Those voices need to be heard. They need a strong, vocal leader in support of reproductive rights, in support of family planning funds, in support of Medicaid funding for abortion. You know, poor women have, you know, two, three times the number of abortions, and they're not provided for. So I think right now, times are critical, and we do need a strong voice of Planned Parenthood.
I'm not sure that Dr. Wen couldn't have been that. I'm sure she understood that there - I don't know this for a fact, but I can't imagine that she was hired and knew the organization and didn't understand that there was a strong role for - to speak up in the - in advocacy forums all over the country.
MCCAMMON: At the time when you were serving as CEO of Planned Parenthood in the early Clinton years, many Democrats were aligned with President Clinton, who famously said, abortion should be safe, legal and rare. As these issues continue to be debated in the public sphere, would you like to see a return by Planned Parenthood and other advocates to that kind of framing of this issue?
MARALDO: Yes, Sarah, I would - and reason being that I think with any medical procedure, any surgical procedure, the watchword should be prevention. I think the best practice is to try and prevent the thing in the first place. So I agree. I think that people that are pro-choice are afraid of stigmatizing abortion when they say it should be rare. And that's not where I'm coming from. I'm coming from a place that too many trips to the doctor's, medical procedures, surgical procedures, could be and should be prevented.
MCCAMMON: That was Pamela Maraldo, CEO of Girls Inc. of New York City. She was also a former president of Planned Parenthood back in the early 1990s.
Thank you so much.
MARALDO: Thank you, too, Sarah.
MCCAMMON: And we invited Planned Parenthood's interim president, Alexis McGill Johnson, to appear on this program. We're told she's not available this weekend, but we are hoping to talk with her in the coming days. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.