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Planned Parenthood President Dr. Leana WenEXPAND
Planned Parenthood President Dr. Leana Wen

With Abortion Rights On the Brink, Planned Parenthood Stays Focused

Monday was a weird time to be celebrating for Planned Parenthood. The venerable reproductive rights advocacy organization and healthcare provider faces attacks from all sides. President Donald Trump wants to strip the organization of millions in federal funding; multiple speakers at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference accused abortion providers of committing infanticide; and new arch-conservative Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch are sitting on the Supreme Court, waiting for their first chance to remake U.S. abortion law.

American women's reproductive rights could be headed back to the Dark Ages, but Planned Parenthood donors, officials and supporters put on their happiest faces anyway at Dallas' Hilton Anatole, walking past the Dallas Police Department officers in the lobby to register for the organization's annual Dallas luncheon.

Many came to see Monday's star guest, Planned Parenthood's new president, Dr. Leana Wen. Wen took over from Planned Parenthood's former president, Cecile Richards, in September, becoming just the second medical doctor to lead the nonprofit. She sat down with the Observer for a few minutes before her headlining gig to talk about Texas women's health crisis, what to do when the truth becomes slippery and the possibility of a post-Roe v. Wade future.

"The patients who come to Planned Parenthood — just like patients across the country — are coming to us because they need health care," Wen says. "They're coming to us for cancer screenings, they're coming to us for birth control, they're coming to us for STI and HIV tests. They're coming to us for basic health care, which includes the full spectrum of reproductive care, including safe, legal abortion."

When abortion providers are cut out of health programs for low-income patients — as they have been in Texas and could be at the federal level, if the Trump administration gets its way — thousands of women miss out on health care.

"Access to health care in Texas and other parts of the country is being taken away," Wen says. "We've seen so many laws [in Texas] that directly restrict people's access to care. Those that it affects the most are the people that already face disproportionate barriers. It's people of color, it's people of low income, it's people who live in rural areas. ... We know what's happened in Texas. We know that after politicians here restricted access to Planned Parenthood and other health centers that women just went without access to care. Thirty-thousand women just went without health care. We know that that's what happens when women lose their provider of choice."

Often, when Planned Parenthood is forced to fight for continued funding, it has to do so against rhetoric that is divorced from reality. Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told CPAC that some people "take the baby home and kill the baby at home.” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has repeatedly accused Planned Parenthood of "selling baby parts," despite there being no evidence that's ever happened.

"It's deeply disturbing when people spout lies. ... It's so much worse when those lies are coming from the president of the United States in an attempt to confuse people and mislead them with things that have no basis in medicine, science or fact," Wen says. "I'm extremely concerned. We're talking, not about an organization here, or about politics, this is about women's health care. This is about the right of everyone to health care that's free from government interference. ... This is also about politicians lying to hide their real agenda, which is to take healthcare access away from women."

In Texas, the latest attempt to curtail abortion access is state Rep. Briscoe Cain's so-called heartbeat bill, which would ban abortion at any time more than six weeks after conception. The law, were it ever to go into effect, would essentially ban abortion in the state because of biology and the increased wait times at abortion clinics that have resulted from previous laws.

A heartbeat bill, whether it's Texas' or a similar one from a different state, will eventually make it to the Supreme Court. The court's decision in that case could overturn Roe v. Wade.

"If Roe is overturned, then 25 million women, which is 1 in 3 women of reproductive age in this country, would be living in states where abortion is criminalized, banned and outlawed," Wen says. "I'm an emergency physician, and I have a mentor who told me about what it was like to work in the 1960s, pre-Roe, that there was an entire area of the hospital known as the sepsis ward, filled with young women who came in because of abortions that they had to have in secret from unlicensed providers. ... These are women who were dying from infections, dying from kidney failure. Just dying. Thousands of women died because they didn't have access to safe, legal abortion. That's what could happen now, 46 years after Roe v. Wade. I find that to be completely unconscionable."

However the legal landscape changes, Wen says, Planned Parenthood is committed to providing the highest level of care they can to as many women as possible.

"If there's one thing that I want to accomplish as the president of Planned Parenthood, it's making clear that reproductive health care is health care. It should be treated no differently than any other aspect of health care," Wen says. "Abortion access, birth control access, access to cancer screening, STI tests, HIV tests, that's all health care. We should not be stigmatizing and treating one aspect of health care different from any other."

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