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The president of Planned Parenthood was forced out of her job Tuesday in a dispute over the direction of the the nation’s largest women’s reproductive rights organization amid growing political and legal challenges to abortion.
Planned Parenthood’s board met in emergency session Tuesday and approved Leana Wen’s immediate departure just eight months after she took over the post.
The move occurs at one of the most difficult moments in the group’s history. The organization faces growing financial peril from a Trump administration rule that took effect Monday barring federally funded family planning clinics from providing referrals for abortions. It is also under attack by antiabortion lawmakers at the state and federal leveland is threatened by the prospect that the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion could be overturned by the Supreme Court’s new conservative majority.
People familiar with Wen’s position said she has been battling over the organization’s direction with new board chair Aimee Cunningham almost since Cunningham arrived in May. Wen had tried to refocus the organization’s mission and image as a health provider offering a wide array of services, including abortions, they said. She replaced a number of the organization’s top officials with people who supported that approach.
Those close to Wen said she was opposed by some board members and others who wanted to emphasize the organization’s commitment to abortion rights.
The board’s perspective was not immediately clear.
Under the new Trump administration rule that targets family planning clinics, Planned Parenthood stands to lose about $60 million a year — a blow that could transform the kinds of reproductive services available to poor women and girls across the country.
Monday’s move by the federal Department of Health and Human Services could force providers like Planned Parenthood to reduce the wide range of health services they offer, including birth control, cancer screenings, abortion and screening for sexually transmitted diseases.The rule also is expected to allow more faith-based groups that focus on persuading women to continue their pregnancies and do not provide most forms of birth control to receive federal funding.
In the first 24 hours after HHS’s notice, two family planning organizations — Planned Parenthood of Illinois and an unrelated clinic that is Maine’s only grant recipient — announced they would no longer accept the federal funds so they could continue referring patients for abortions.
The federal government’s $260 million family planning program serves 4 million women with low-cost or free health care services, including mammograms and Pap smears. About 40 percent of those patients are currently seen at Planned Parenthood and its affiliates. Women’s rights groups expressed alarm Tuesday at the impact of immediate enforcement of the rule.
Abortion is a legal medical procedure, but federal laws prohibit the use of taxpayer funds to pay for abortions except in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the woman.
The most controversial part of the rule — prohibiting providers from offering counseling or referrals for abortion, which critics call a “gag rule” — will be enforced immediately, HHS said. Violators could lose federal funds.
“Moving forward with this policy to take away women’s rights before the legal process has played out is reckless and will hurt those whom HHS is supposed to serve,” Michelle Kuppersmith, director of Equity Forward, a watchdog project focused on reproductive health, said in a statement.
Planned Parenthood was thrust into the spotlight by opponents in 2015, when two antiabortion activists, posing as representatives of a biomedical research firm, secretly recorded a video of their conversation with affiliate officials, which included discussion of the organization’s donation of tissue from aborted fetuses for biomedical research.
The activists released a heavily edited version of the video that purported to demonstrate that the organization profits from the tissue — an allegation the group has vehemently denied.
Wen was appointed Planned Parenthood’s president last November, succeeding Cecile Richards, the organization’s high-profile president for the previous dozen years.
Trained as an emergency room physician, Wen had been Baltimore’s health commissioner for four years. She used that position to speak out about Trump administration policies that she said hurt women’s reproductive rights. She objected to the administration’s changes to family planning policy, organizing doctors and other health professionals against the rule. She also was one of the most vocal advocates for treatment and other services for substance abusers.
A Shanghai native, she emigrated to the U.S. at age 7, living in Utah and California. She started college when she was 13, went to medical school and eventually became a Rhodes Scholar.