Credit: HungryForester

August 4, 2019; The Atlantic

Last month, as NPQ covered, the board of Planned Parenthood announced that Dr. Leana Wen, who had started as CEO only eight months before, was being asked to step down and that she would be replaced, on an interim basis, by Alexis McGill Johnson, the executive director and co-founder of the Perception Institute, who would serve as acting CEO.

The causes of Wen’s ouster are in dispute. One narrative suggests that she was asked to leave because she wanted to move Planned Parenthood away from more confrontational forms of political action and place greater attention on public health. Wen herself cited “philosophical differences over the direction and future of Planned Parenthood” as a primary cause of her departure. On the other hand, BuzzFeed News reports that “six sources familiar with Wen’s firing…named significant management issues as part of the board’s decision to oust Wen,” with the “list of top political staff departures” nearing double digits by the time of Wen’s early departure. Reduced fundraising was also reportedly a concern.

For argument’s sake, however, let’s accept Wen’s account at face value. If so, what does this tell us? Emma Green in the Atlantic tries to answer this question. However, Green gets tripped up. Even as she aims to provide historical context, she parrots some common tropes, setting up a false dichotomy between allegedly “pragmatic” moderates and “extreme” progressives—a dichotomy which, as it happens, fits rather awkwardly with Planned Parenthood’s history.

For example, Green quotes Mary Ziegler, a professor of law at Florida State University who specializes in the legal history of abortion, who says, “If you’re looking at where’s the energy in the pro-choice movement right now, it’s definitely the more progressive or more extreme vision, depending on your point of view, of what pro-choice advocacy means.” She adds that people today believe that “principled, sweeping stands…play better than incremental, pragmatic ones.”

On the face of it, Ziegler sounds reasonable. But as Green profiles three past Planned Parenthood presidents—Faye Wattleton (1978–1993), Pamela Maraldo (1993–1995), and Gloria Feldt (1996–2005), a discordant theme becomes clear. Those who support strong political advocacy—the allegedly non-pragmatic point of view—thrive, while those like Wen and Maraldo who favor a moderate, “neutral,” public health perspective fail. And this has been true for decades.

As Green puts it:

Over the past 40 years of personnel drama at the top of Planned Parenthood, one theme has remained constant: The hard-charging political warriors have tended to last longer than the women who tried to neutralize Planned Parenthood’s image. Cecile Richards, who succeeded Feldt, was a savvy political strategist who was nursed on red-state politics: Her mother, Ann, stands as the last Democrat and last woman to serve as governor of Texas. Richards led the organization for 12 years, expanding both its services and its donor base.

Green also observes that, “The strategy Maraldo articulated in the ’90s, outlining a vision of Planned Parenthood as a general health-care provider, eventually led to her ouster from the organization. Her successor, Feldt, represented a return to Planned Parenthood’s earlier era.”

Feldt, Green relates, told her that she learned at Planned Parenthood that, “Controversy is your friend. When something is controversial, it means it’s important enough that people are paying attention. You can take that energy, and you can use it to propel yourself forward.”

So, if you accept the common dictionary definition of “pragmatism”—i.e., a practical approach—then weren’t Wattleton, Feldt, and Richards more pragmatic than Maraldo and Wen? If the non-pragmatists prevail time and again, exactly how impractical are they?

Of course, this does not mean that being aggressive always prevails or that maintaining a focus on public health isn’t just as important to Planned Parenthood’s success as political advocacy.

But Planned Parenthood’s experience may teach us a few things about social change and politics that have broad applicability for our sector. Here are a few thoughts:

  • Advocacy matters: Fail to engage in advocacy at your own risk. Planned Parenthood, now 103, has performed best when it has maintained an effective advocacy voice.
  • Clear vision and identity matter: Oddly, the headline to Green’s article suggests that Planned Parenthood has had a “never-ending identity crisis.” But Green documents the exact opposite. Clearly, the organization has a very strong vision and identity—and when leaders like Maraldo and Wen stray from that identity and vision, they are quickly shown the door.
  • There is no “outside” of politics: As Wattleton told Green, “Asking Planned Parenthood to step out of politics is like asking the organization to simply avoid its attackers”—in short, much as your nonprofit may strive for neutrality, there is no truly “neutral” position.

And, of course, while sometimes the moderate position may be “pragmatic,” other times the only pragmatic choice—meaning, an action that might succeed—is the more radical option. Put differently, sometimes “playing it safe” is the most dangerous thing of all.—Steve Dubb