Planned Parenthood CEO Wen on 2020 election: It's the 'fight of our time'

Leana Wen photo from WSJ Future of Everything Festival
The CEO of Planned Parenthood said the organization plans to challenge a number of restrictive state abortion bills passed in 2019. (ProductionManager/Adam Shultz)

NEW YORK CITY—After Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the most restrictive abortion bill in the country to date, Planned Parenthood health centers in the state set up a separate phone line just to address the flood of calls coming in from concerned patients, according to Planned Parenthood Federation of America President and CEO Leana Wen, M.D. 

"Right now, as we speak, abortion is safe and legal in all 50 states and we are trying to get that message out," Wen said while speaking at The Wall Street Journal's Future of Everything Festival on Monday.

"What keeps us up at night, it’s not the phone calls," she said. "It’s the people who may not be calling us and we can’t reach them."

Her speech came as a collection of states have pursued restrictive abortion legislation. Missouri also passed a bill last week to ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, making the state the eighth this year to pass abortion restrictions that could challenge the constitutional right established in Roe v. Wade.

Under the Alabama bill, physicians who perform abortions could face up to 99 years in prison, and attempting an abortion would be considered a Class C felony, putting the physician at risk of a 10-year prison term.

RELATED: Physicians could face life in prison under new Alabama abortion law; doctor groups decry 'political interference

Wen, who has been in her leadership role with Planned Parenthood only six months, vowed that the organization, in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations, would fight restrictive abortion bills in the courts. "These are unconstitutional, illegal and dangerous bans," she said. "Not giving medical care to women is hurting women."

The latest bans are not yet in effect, and all are expected to face lengthy court battles—indeed, their proponents are hoping they will reach the Supreme Court.

If Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision set in 1973, is overturned, 1 in 3 women, or about 25 million, could be living in a state where abortion is banned, outlawed and criminalized, Wen said.

"I come to this work as a physician providing care to my patients," Wen said, noting stories that her physician mentor in medical school told her about working in the emergency room in the 1960s. "My mentor recalled that there were entire wards in the hospital filled with women who were dying because they didn’t have access to safe abortions. These women sought care in garages, farms, and other countries, and they were dying of kidney failure and dying of sepsis. We simply can’t go back to that point."

In addition to the restriction on abortions, the Georgia law proposes that the state can investigate women who have had miscarriages to look at whether someone performed an illegal abortion on her.

RELATED: AMA files lawsuit to block Title X rule restricting abortion clinic funding

"What kind of dystopian world do we live in that the government can look at our medical records? That’s what is at stake right now," Wen said.

Wen said the 2020 presidential election would be the "fight of our time," and Planned Parenthood and other organizations plan to engage and mobilize voters. "(President Donald) Trump has made it clear that he wants women’s health and abortion care to be an issue in the 2020 elections. Bring it on," Wen said.

Expanding services while fighting Title X changes

Planned Parenthood is the largest reproductive health and abortion provider in the U.S. and operates more than 600 health centers across the country. The organization is focused on reproductive and sexual health care and offers services such as cervical cancer screenings, sexually transmitted disease testing, birth control and wellness visits.

Wen said the organization is expanding its services into primary care, and some centers offer mental health care as well as referrals for substance abuse disorder treatments. It is also expanding access to services that address social determinants of health.

"We are expanding our services all the while we are under attack because we have to. That’s what patients expect from us," she said.

RELATED: U.S. judge blocks 'gag rule' on abortion, calls policy 'madness'

Back in February, the Trump administration released a final rule that revises regulations around the Title X family planning program to block funding to groups that provide abortion referrals. Largely seen as a direct attack on Planned Parenthood, the final rule requires providers that receive Title X funding to maintain "physical and financial separation" from an abortion provider.

Officials have said the funding is still available to provide healthcare access to patients, but at different providers than those who offer abortions. They have also said it allows providers to mention abortion but not to provide information and referrals for one.

Multiple medical organizations including the American Medical Association have filed lawsuits to block the Trump administration rule, saying it imposes restrictions on the patient-physician relationship.

As a physician, Wen said she is concerned about the millions of patients who would no longer have access to healthcare if the Title X "gag rule" changes are implemented.

"I think about my patient, a mother of three, whom in her 30s was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. She waited a year before she had a breast exam and by the time she she received care, she was diagnosed with metastatic cancer and died soon after. That's the cost of these policies," Wen said.