Leana Wen Wants to Have a More Nuanced Conversation About Abortion

Eliana Dockterman

Leana Wen, the former head of Planned Parenthood and a professor at George Washington University, addressed a controversial statement she made on abortion during the TIME 100 Health Summit on Thursday. Wen kicked off a firestorm on Twitter Tuesday when she broke with typical Planned Parenthood language and said that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” a Clinton-era phrase that has since gone out of vogue among many abortion rights activists.

During Tuesday’s Democratic primary debate, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard argued that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” prompting Wen to write on Twitter, “I don’t agree with @TulsiGabbard on a lot, but do appreciate that she brought up the third rail for Democrats: that abortion should be ‘safe, legal, and rare.’ We should reduce the need for abortions by investing in prevention.”

In the decades since Clinton’s presidency, abortion rights activists have argued the “rare” categorization stigmatizes a procedure that nearly one in four American women will undergo in their lives. Planned Parenthood has stopped using the phrase on their materials. Wen’s tweet elicited angry responses.

During a panel on women’s health on Thursday, Ariana Huffington asked Wen about the backlash. After pointing out that banning abortion would not stop abortion, but would stop safe and legal abortion, Wen went on to bemoan the lack of nuance in the abortion debate.

“I’m deeply disturbed by how healthcare has become so politicized,” she said. “So much so that we cannot even discuss our points of agreement and the nuanced views that many people can have without being attacked from all sides.”

(L-R) Arianna Huffington, Dr. Leana Wen, Dr. Naveen Rao and Christy Turlington Burns pose backstage during the TIME 100 Health Summit at Pier 17 in New York City on Oct. 17, 2019. | Craig Barritt—Getty Images for TIME 100 Health

She went on: “A lot of us believe that abortion is a complex moral issue. And we may not want to have an abortion ourselves but would never get in the way of somebody else making this deeply personal medical decision for themselves. Or maybe we’re even uncomfortable about abortion but would not want women to die because they don’t have access to safe, legal abortion either.”

On Twitter, Wen has argued that pro-abortion rights activists have only hurt their cause by refusing to adopt the “safe, legal and rare” language, allowing anti-abortion rights activists to cast the Pro-Choice movement as radical and extreme. This view stands in sharp contrast to those of Cecile Richards, her predecessor at Planned Parenthood, who promoted campaigns like “shout your abortion” in an effort to let women know that they weren’t alone and de-stigmatize the practice.

Wen took over for Richards last year, but departed from the organization abruptly this summer. She wrote in a New York Times op-ed that she and her former colleagues had “philosophical differences” about the best way to protect women’s health.

“While the traditional approach has been through prioritizing advocating for abortion rights, I have long believed that the most effective way to advance reproductive health is to be clear that it is not a political issue but a health care one,” she wrote. “I believed we could expand support for Planned Parenthood — and ultimately for abortion access — by finding common ground with the large majority of Americans who can unite behind the goal of improving the health and well-being of women and children.”

While at the time she did not specifically use the “safe, legal and rare” language, she has since suggested that doing so would help win Planned Parenthood more supporters.

On stage at the Time 100 Health Summit, she echoed that sentiment. “I hope that we can begin with these points of agreement and understand and accept the nuances and complexities, while emphasizing what we all know to be true that healthcare has to be a human right guaranteed for all and not just a privilege available only to some.”