Audie Cornish talks with Dr. Leana Wen, who is leaving her job as Baltimore Health Commissioner to become the president of Planned Parenthood.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The women's health organization Planned Parenthood has announced a new president. And she is familiar to this program.
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LEANA WEN: Hi, I'm Dr. Wen. Nice to meet you. I'm the health commissioner.
NATHAN FIELDS: This is Dr. Wen. This is the health commissioner for Baltimore city.
CORNISH: Dr. Leana Wen will be leaving her job as health commissioner for the city of Baltimore. We began following her efforts there to get a handle on the opioid crisis back in 2015. Wen will be only the second medical doctor to run Planned Parenthood. Dr. Wen, welcome back to the program.
WEN: Nice to talk with you again, Audie. Thanks for having me on.
CORNISH: So tell us why you're deciding to leave Baltimore and the job of health commissioner now.
WEN: You know, I became a doctor because I saw what happens when people don't have the health care that they need. And in my role as the health commissioner in Baltimore, I see public health challenges all the time. But I also see how the single biggest public health catastrophe of our time is the threat to women's health.
CORNISH: Now, I want to talk a little more about this. You said earlier today that you don't believe that - the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when he says that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision is settled law. Why not?
WEN: I have to look at the evidence. I'm a doctor and scientist. And there's - one data point is that President Trump said that he has a litmus test for judges that they need to be committed to overturning Roe v. Wade. Second is that Brett Kavanaugh has a long record of restricting women's access to care. And in his hearings, he has said nothing to reassure us in any way that he will protect a woman's right to access the reproductive care we need.
CORNISH: He has said that it's settled law. And here's the thing. If you believe that a Supreme Court with Kavanaugh on it could one day overturn Roe or allow for more restrictions on abortion access, where does that leave Planned Parenthood?
WEN: Well, you're right that if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed, it is reasonable to expect that the court will overturn Roe v. Wade. And as a doctor, I know the consequences of that. We will pay for it directly with women's lives.
CORNISH: If you believe that, what is your plan for that future? How does the organization's goal - goals change?
WEN: We are already seeing that future. We are already seeing safety net clinics closing around the country because of restrictive state laws, leaving women without basic health care like cancer screening and family planning. We're already seeing what happens when standard medical care like abortion is banned. And women are dying again. Our mission, our commitment in Planned Parenthood is to provide health care no matter what. It is to vigorously defend that right to health care. It's also to point out the truth. It's to point out what data and science show us, which is that we know what works when it comes to reducing the need for abortions. We know that what works is birth control. We know what works is family planning.
CORNISH: And you're still speaking very much like a medical doctor. And the thing is, Planned Parenthood is at the center of America's culture wars, right? Your predecessor, Cecile Richards, she was the daughter of the late Texas Governor Ann Richards. She came from a political background. You're not a politician. You're a doctor. Are you prepared to move into this arena, to be partisan?
WEN: Well, here's the thing. Health care shouldn't be political.
CORNISH: But it is. And Planned Parenthood is almost at the center of that in so many ways.
WEN: But for the nearly 2 1/2 million people who walk through the doors of Planned Parenthood every single year it's not about politics. It's about basic medical care. And that's what I've been doing my entire career. It's about providing health care to those people who need it. But it's also about vigorously defending the right to health. It's about fighting for access to health care. In Baltimore, for example, we sued the Trump administration last year when they cut our teen pregnancy prevention programs. It's about the 20,000 students who would have otherwise - not be able to get comprehensive reproductive health education. By the way, we sued them, and we won.
CORNISH: As you leave Baltimore, is there a sense of unfinished business? More than 500 people overdosed between January and September last year. Baltimore County had the second largest number of deaths in the state when it comes to the opioid crisis. Do you feel like there was more to be done?
WEN: Always. The work of public health never stops. I love Baltimore. I love my team. We've done a lot around the opioid epidemic. We have one of the most aggressive and progressive programs to fight the epidemic. We have, as a result of my standing order, the blanket prescription that I issued three years ago, everyday residents - have saved the lives of nearly 3,000 residents in our city. We've reduced infant mortality by almost 40 percent and cut the gap between black and white infant mortality in our city by more than 50 percent. We now have a program to provide glasses free of charge to every child in our city. I mean, there's so much that we have done. There's a lot more to do.
CORNISH: Looking back on your own experience, you talked about your family members relying on Planned Parenthood for health care. But we've also talked to you in the past about being a kid coming to the U.S. from China, receiving political asylum. We've talked about your troubles with stuttering as a kid. Does it feel like you've come a long way here in this moment?
WEN: I am very lucky in my life to have been able to make the choices that I did. And in part I was able to make the choices because I had the support to do so and because our society allowed me to. I've been thinking a lot in recent days about abortion not only from a clinical perspective as a doctor but also personally. I haven't had an abortion, but I have been the woman who has taken a pregnancy test and wished more than anything that it would show I'm not pregnant because at that point in my life, I wasn't ready to be a mother. I wanted to go to college. I wanted to go to medical school. I wanted to get out of the circumstances of my past and achieve my dreams.
But I've also been that same woman who at a different point in my life took a pregnancy test and wished more than anything that it were positive because at that point, my husband and I desperately wanted to start a family. And I'm so lucky now that I have my son, Eli, who just turned a year old. You know, I was able to make the choices for myself. And I strongly believe that we as a society should trust women.
CORNISH: Dr. Leana Wen - she's the new president of Planned Parenthood. Thank you so much for your time.
WEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.