Dr. Leana Wen

Dr. Leana Wen joined Planned Parenthood Federation of America as President in November 2018, which is the nation's leading provider of sexual and reproductive health care and education. She also serves on the School of Public Health's Dean's Council.

May 18, 2019

Dr. Leana Wen, President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, is the Spring 2019 School of Public Health commencement keynote speaker. Here she provides some insight into her motivations as a public health leader and advice to graduates about how they can make a difference. 

What inspired you to leave your role as Baltimore’s Health Commissioner to lead Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest single provider of reproductive health services, and how do you manage the responsibility and stress of leading an organization that is a target of violent attacks and virulent political backlash?

I left the job that I loved as Health Commissioner for the City of Baltimore because the stakes for our health, our rights, and our lives could not be higher.

I think about the world that I want for my 20-month-old son, Eli. I do not want my children to grow up in a world where they have fewer rights than we do. And every day, that reminder serves as my motivation to fight—no matter the challenges ahead.

Students graduating this year have never known the pervasive and extreme attacks on women’s health care and the volume of proposed restrictions on abortion access that we are seeing now across the United States. What would you say to graduates about what is at stake and how they can respond?

This year, we have seen a coordinated attack by anti-women’s health politicians to overturn Roe v. Wade. If Roe were overturned, as many as 25 million women—1 in every 3 women of reproductive age—would be living a state where abortion is criminalized, banned, and outlawed. As an emergency care physician, I have seen what’s at stake when people don’t have access to the health care they need. Too often, the cost is people’s lives.

We need public health champions to stand up and speak up on what we know to be true: that abortion is part of the full spectrum of reproductive healthcare, that reproductive healthcare is healthcare, and that healthcare is a fundamental human right.

What advice would you give to graduates entering the fields of government, health policy, and community health care about how they can help to make a difference on issues like the national maternal mortality crisis (particularly for black women), and improve health and well-being for marginalized communities (including LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, people of color and low-income families)?

My advice to the graduates is to always take action. There are injustices and inequities everywhere we look: From pervasive stigma, to disparities in access to care across gender, races, and geographical lines. Those of us in public health don’t just accept the status quo; for us, inaction is never an option. While the problems we face may seem overwhelming, there will always be something we can do—and we must be the ones to step up.