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Planned Parenthood’s new president is on a mission to make sex ed more accessible

In her previous role as Baltimore’s health commissioner, Planned Parenthood’s new president, Leana Wen, reduced the racial gap in black and white infant mortality by more than 50%, and slashed teen pregnancy rates by 61%. Now she’s launching a chatbot to help teens with their most pressing sex questions.

Planned Parenthood’s new president is on a mission to make sex ed more accessible
Leana Wen[Photo: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images]

In her first two months on the job, Planned Parenthood’s new president, Leana Wen, has made one thing clear: Planned Parenthood has always been a healthcare provider, and that includes access to abortion and reproductive healthcare.

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“That’s why immediately after I started, we launched the campaign called ‘This is Healthcare’ to reiterate that it’s well past time that we recognize that women’s healthcare and reproductive healthcare–including birth control, cancer screenings, abortion, and STD testing–is what it is,” Wen says. “It’s standard healthcare.”

As the first doctor to lead Planned Parenthood in almost 50 years, Wen is just the person to carry that message. When Wen was eight years old, her family immigrated to the U.S. from China, and they relied on Medicaid and Planned Parenthood. “I think about how much we struggled at times for something as basic as healthcare,” she says. “And it’s a privilege to be able to provide the type of care that my family and I benefited from when we needed it the most.” In her previous role as Baltimore’s health commissioner, Wen reduced the racial gap in black and white infant mortality by more than 50%, slashed teen pregnancy rates by 61%, and tackled opioid addiction by improving addiction treatment and effectively making naloxone (the drug that counteracts overdoses) an over-the-counter medication.

The choice to install Wen at the helm of Planned Parenthood on the cusp of 2019, especially after Cecile Richards’s tenure, seems like an intentional one. Though Planned Parenthood offers a spectrum of healthcare services to nearly 2.5 million patients per year, it has long been seen as a battleground for abortion rights. During Richards’s 12-year stint as president, Planned Parenthood had to fend off ceaseless attacks by a Republican-majority Congress looking to defund the organization and more recently, the Trump administration’s embrace of that agenda. That won Planned Parenthood more allies, too—it now has 12 million supporters, up from 3 million in 2006–but it also painted the organization as unapologetically political.

As the new face of Planned Parenthood, Wen intends to remind people of its raison d’être: providing healthcare and protecting access to it. That also means expanding that access to better serve existing Planned Parenthood patients who rely on them for all their healthcare needs. On January 9, Wen kicked off a listening tour that started in Ohio and will take her to 20 Planned Parenthood affiliates. She’ll be taking note of what affiliates are doing to “increase access through mobile vans, pop-up clinics, and other innovative ways of reaching people where they are,” she says, as well as their work on maternal health initiatives and addressing racial disparities in care for pregnant women.

Improving sex ed

Today, Planned Parenthood is rolling out an automated chatbot called Roo that is primarily targeted at teenagers, to arm them with information on topics like masturbation and body image and make sex education more accessible. Sample questions range from “How do I know if I’m gay?” to “Is my vagina normal?” The chatbot will expand on its repertoire of answers as more people use Roo and pose new questions.

Richards was responsible for using technology to attract younger supporters; their Chat/Text service, for example, empowers teens to directly text or message health educators with questions about sexual and reproductive health. Roo, which Planned Parenthood has been testing for months, presents another opportunity for Planned Parenthood to expand its audience and reach people who may have never set foot in a Planned Parenthood clinic. “Developed together with teens, our new one-of-a-kind chatbot is another way Planned Parenthood is expanding ways of delivering personalized, immediate, and accurate information to young people,” Wen said in a statement. “No matter where you are, Planned Parenthood is here to provide you with evidence-based, judgment-free information.”

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As an automated chatbot, Roo also provides a judgment-free space–one without a human, anonymous or otherwise, on the other end. Young people are more inclined to share personal information and ask intimate questions when interacting with a chatbot. “We know that many young people are nervous or embarrassed to ask questions about their sexual health,” Wen said. “They often go online to get information and ask their questions anonymously. It’s important that our youth receive a reliable answer they can trust.”

Expanding into other realms of healthcare

Wen also hopes to build on other healthcare services that may not fall under the umbrella of reproductive healthcare, such as treatment for opioid addiction and mental health counseling. “We have 55 affiliates across the country that exist in very different climates,” Wen says. “The political climate is different, the healthcare climate is different, and the communities and their needs are therefore different. Healthcare is local.” The goal of the listening tour, she says, is to give her more insight into the local healthcare needs of those communities–and how Planned Parenthood is meeting those needs.

Tackling workplace issues

The listening tour also nods at another challenge Wen faces. Planned Parenthood has about 12,000 employees across more than 600 health centers, which are run by regional affiliates that have their own leadership and HR policies. A tight budget–and the fear of losing federal funding–has brought the same type of workplace issues that plague countless other organizations. The New York Times recently reported that pregnant workers at Planned Parenthood centers in California, New York, North Carolina, and Texas faced discrimination from managers who “declined to hire pregnant job candidates, refused requests by expecting mothers to take breaks, and in some cases pushed them out of their jobs after they gave birth.” Of Planned Parenthood’s 55 affiliates, 49 do not provide paid maternity leave.

“I’m deeply disappointed as a doctor, as a public health leader, and as a mother,” she says. “I know how challenging pregnancy and returning to work can be. I also know how essential it is that all employers support pregnant women and new parents. Make no mistake: At Planned Parenthood, we do not tolerate discrimination or harassment.” Wen says Planned Parenthood is investigating the allegations of discrimination and reviewing its parental leave policies through a new initiative. “We know we need to be better,” she says. “We’ve started to seek the advice of external experts; we are working now with our affiliates and leaders at our national office to advise on best practices and assist with the implementation. For us, this is about respecting the dignity and well-being of all families and all people.”

That said, Wen believes real change needs to come from a federal and state level, to ensure broader access to paid family leave. Which is to say Wen isn’t exactly poised to lead Planned Parenthood into a less political era–quite the opposite, in fact, with the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. And while Wen may not share Richards’s political pedigree, she has already sued the Trump administration for curbing funding for teen pregnancy prevention during her time in the Baltimore health commissioner’s office. “In the last seven years, there have been over 400 restrictions on abortion that had been signed into law and the impact is decimating abortion access and the cost is people’s lives,” she says. “Roe v. Wade could be overturned or further eroded in the next year, meaning that 25 million women, which is one in three women of reproductive age in this country, could be living in states where abortion is outlawed and banned.”

Planned Parenthood’s campaign during the midterms reached 5 million voters, Wen says, and the election installed countless advocates–and 11 alumni–of Planned Parenthood in positions across Congress, gubernatorial offices, and state legislatures. “We will be fighting in every way,” she continues. “We will be fighting through the courts. We’ll be fighting with our new champions in the House of Representatives. We’ll be fighting with our new champions in governor’s houses and state legislators.” As the next election rears its head–and with the support of 25 pro-reproductive health governors and 19 pro-reproductive health state legislatures–Planned Parenthood will stay the course. “We are a political force,” Wen says. “We will continue to expand our impact politically because this is the fight of our time.”

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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