Planned Parenthood, under fire from conservatives in Washington and state capitols, chose Leana Wen, an emergency room doctor whose family fled China when she was a child, as its next president Wednesday, picking a woman who won praise for her steadying hand as Baltimore’s health commissioner during the city’s convulsive protests in 2015.
Dr. Wen, 35, grew up poor in Compton, Calif., after her family left China following the Tiananmen Square massacre just before her eighth birthday. She relied on Medicaid as a child, and in nearly four years in Baltimore has drawn acclaim for working with corporations and churches to close racial disparities in health care and sharply reducing infant mortality.
She has also pushed back aggressively on the Trump administration’s cuts to health care. She will take over Planned Parenthood’s leadership at a particularly fraught time. While Americans overwhelmingly support the organization, its Republican critics are pushing to cut its funding and eviscerate or overturn Roe v. Wade, and the Supreme Court is poised to tilt further right as critical cases on women’s health advance through the courts.
Earlier this year, Baltimore sued the Trump administration for cutting teen pregnancy prevention funds, which resulted in a federal judge ordering $5 million in grant funding to be restored to two of the city’s programs. She fought to preserve Title X funding for the city’s health clinics for low-income women, and is leading a lawsuit that accuses the administration of intentionally and unlawfully sabotaging the Affordable Care Act.
“Anyone who has worked with Dr. Wen knows that when it comes to protecting her patients, she doesn’t back down from a fight,” said Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, for whom Dr. Wen has said she named her son. “In Baltimore, she has expanded care, found solutions around obstacles, and, most important of all, saved lives. While Baltimore is losing its ‘Doctor for the City,’” Planned Parenthood is gaining a powerful new advocate.”
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The organization’s last president, Cecile Richards, came from a more political background, as a former Democratic staff member on Capitol Hill and the daughter of former Texas governor Ann Richards.
People involved in the search said that the selection of Dr. Wen — she is the sixth president and only the second doctor in the organization’s 102-year history to serve in the role — was intended to underscore that Planned Parenthood is an organization providing health care to nearly 2.5 million mostly poor patients as well as an advocacy group.
As its clinics have closed because of cuts in state and federal funding, the organization has had to reimagine how it delivers health care, with more emphasis on telemedicine and other technology. (Planned Parenthood says that abortions account for just three percent of the services its 600-odd clinics provide annually and that most of its services are testing and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, and contraception.)
At the same time, officials said they expect Dr. Wen to be a powerful advocate for protecting women’s freedom in making their own health care decisions; it will be hard for politicians to argue with her medical knowledge about what happens when women who depend on Planned Parenthood for health care are denied it.
Sarah Stoesz, the chief executive of Planned Parenthood for Minnesota and North and South Dakota and a member of the search committee, called her “the right leader for this moment.”
“Dr. Wen is fearless,” she said in an email. “As an emergency physician, she has faced dire and urgent crisis and demonstrated her ability to quickly and very effectively save lives.”
Dr. Wen and her family arrived from China with $40 to their name. They were granted political asylum and became citizens in 2003. Dr. Wen told the search committee that she and her mother and sister relied on Planned Parenthood for health care. She graduated from college at 18 and during medical school volunteered at a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis. She then became a Rhodes Scholar.
“As an immigrant, she understands as many of our patients do, what is feels like to be on the outside,” Ms. Stoesz said. “As a child in rural America, she understands the unique health access challenges that people, especially women, living in large, conservative and sparsely populated states face. As health access continues be threatened, Dr. Wen instinctively knows how to respond, and what works.”
Planned Parenthood has been in the cross hairs of Republican-controlled Washington over the last two years, with congressional leaders attempting to strip the reimbursements it receives from Medicaid for serving poor women. States such as Texas have gone further, banning Planned Parenthood from receiving state funds, which resulted in the closing of dozens of clinics and reductions in prenatal care, cancer screenings and birth control.
But the Trump era has also rallied a base of support for Planned Parenthood; the organization said it has 2 million new members in the last two years, for a total of 12 million.