This morning, Planned Parenthood’s new president, Dr. Leana Wen, started her first official day of work with a softball interview with “CBS This Morning.”
Despite running an organization notorious for providing abortions, Wen somehow — with the help of a cadre of perky CBS hosts — manages to avoid the word “abortion” and skirt around the topic for nearly the entire interview. I must give credit where it’s due: Planned Parenthood has managed to completely rebrand abortion into “reproductive rights” and “women’s healthcare,” with what seems like great success, given how many pro-choicers proudly profess their support nationwide, using these exact curated terms. Just because something is popular, though, does not make it right, and just because something sounds good does not mean it is true.
Wen does an excellent job of toeing the party line, as is to be expected from the leader of an intensely political-but-not-technically-political organization. The real issue, though, is that CBS’s journalists let Wen prattle on with anesthetized talking point after talking point. For example, Wen claimed early on, “We do more to prevent unintended pregnancies every year than any other organization,” and that the organization provides cancer screenings and birth control, in addition to life-saving care for millions of people annually. CBS accepted this claim totally uncritically.
Eventually, however, one of the hosts felt the need to push back ever-so-gently: “Did you have any trepidation — you’re the mother of a 14-month-old baby, Elijah [Elias], you’re still a practicing emergency room physician — it’s now become such a politicized and such a controversial job, did you have any trepidation about taking it?”
Wen responded: “Being a parent has clarified my values. What I want to do is shape the future for my son, Eli. And it’s a future where all people are treated the same, that all people have the right to healthcare. It’s a society where we trust women.”
Wen’s vision is peachy (and in any other context, I would agree that trusting individuals’ autonomy is crucial, except when it rubs up against the rights of another human), but she conveniently sidestepped the question, pulling out rhetoric about trusting women. As a female pro-lifer myself, I would note perhaps Wen should acknowledge that not all objections to abortion have to do with distrust of women (in fact, very few do).
Many objections center around wanting to protect the rights of the innocent unborn fetus that is indisputably developing, and will continue developing into a baby inside the woman’s uterus, if unhindered. Distrust of women, although a convenient way of framing it, is not the real issue. Lots of pro-lifers, conservatives, and libertarians are interested in protecting an individual’s right to make their own choices. The issue comes when those choices fundamentally harm other living beings, creating a more complex trade-off than most pro-choicers are comfortable admitting.
A Doctor, Not A Politician
Wen also claimed: “I come to this work as a doctor and not a politician. I’ll work with anyone who wants to expand access to healthcare. For me, it’s deeply personal.”
She went on to talk about treating a woman who had a lump in her breast that went untreated for too long, and how the patient died not long after, due to her reluctance to seek — and pay for — medical care. No doubt, Wen feels this pain acutely, as anyone passionate about their patients and work would. But she continued: “For me, that’s what it’s about. It’s about saving people’s lives. That’s the work we’ve done at Planned Parenthood for over 100 years.”
Sure, there’s plenty of good done by Planned Parenthood each year (though not as much as I’d like — the annual number of adoption referrals pales in comparison to number of abortions performed annually). But it’s wickedly misleading for Wen to wage this silly sound bite campaign about how Planned Parenthood is fundamentally concerned with life-saving, and not also with life-taking, as half the country sees it. Surely Wen can see the twisted irony to her words, and the obvious parallels evoked by her talk of saving lives.
Later on, another host asked: “Doctor, you said becoming a mother clarified your values. So many people I’ve talked to who want to restrict abortion rights said parenthood clarified their values and that’s why they want to restrict abortion rights. What do you tell those people who have the same parent-based authenticity to their beliefs that you claim?”
“I respect each person’s beliefs for themselves,” claimed Wen. “My problem is if they want to impose their own beliefs on other people. As a physician, I trust my patients … my job is to give medically accurate information to my patients and allow them to make the best choices about their health.”
But this logic is bad. We impose our beliefs on other people all the time in society, when we consider things to be beyond the pale. Murder and theft, for example, are acts we (mostly) hold in common as bad things to be punished and avoided; telling people not to do such things and constructing laws that punish violators is undoubtedly an imposition of our beliefs on other people. It’s odd that pro-choicers cannot see that, to pro-lifers, abortion is an immoral, harmful and violent act. But restoring the debate to those terms would make it more honest and, indeed, more difficult for them to win.
Intellectual Honesty And ‘Women’s Health’
If Wen is actually interested in giving medically accurate information to her patients, she should be more intellectually honest about what is actually at stake here and why “women’s health” gets people so fired up. Make no mistake, there are ostensibly moral and well-intentioned people on both sides here, who think they are maximizing for good outcomes. But what it really comes down to — and the president of Planned Parenthood must understand this, even if she won’t admit it — is a disagreement about when life begins, how much we need to protect it, and whether the interests of a mother trump the interests of her developing child.
As Catherine Glenn Foster, President and CEO of Americans United for Life, put it in a statement to The Federalist:
Leana Wen’s first day as President of Planned Parenthood will be remembered for her steadfast avoidance of the word and act that defines her organization: abortion. In her appearance on CBS This Morning, Wen avoided any direct mention of Planned Parenthood’s devotion to abortion. No physician should shy away from a truthful description of the medical realities confronting their patients.
Wen appears ready to cynically trade in on her bona fides as a physician, rhetorically covering over the realities and deadly consequences of abortion. We encourage anyone interviewing Leana Wen in the future to ask her a simple question: Is a preborn child’s right to life only secure if that child’s parents want her? And if so, what makes that a scientific or medical basis for determining human rights? Any interviews that avoid confronting Leana Wen and Planned Parenthood with that sort of question are, properly speaking, exercises in marketing rather than journalism.
Foster is right that journalists, regardless of ideology, should not hand the new Planned Parenthood head such easy questions.
It’s completely absurd for Wen to claim she’s interested in these issues solely as a physician, not a politician. Surely she’s not surprised that being president of Planned Parenthood comes with a hefty dose of fighting political battles. It seems like she’s up to the task, given that her first interview was nothing but shallow talking points ginned up by Planned Parenthood’s public relations team.