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‘Every generation has their fight, and this is ours’: Planned Parenthood’s president on the battle for the Supreme Court

Alexis McGill Johnson explains how she’s positioning the nonprofit for the post-COVID-19 era and bracing for battle.

‘Every generation has their fight, and this is ours’: Planned Parenthood’s president on the battle for the Supreme Court
[Source Photo: trekandshoot/iStock]
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For Fast Company’Shape of Tomorrow series, we’re asking business leaders to share their inside perspective on how the COVID-19 era is transforming their industries. Here’s what’s been lost—and what could be gained—in the new world order.

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Alexis McGill Johnson became president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund in June after almost a year serving as acting president. She presides over the organization at a turbulent time: With the nation facing a public health crisis, Planned Parenthood staffers have been working round the clock to serve patients across the county. The organization has also been fighting in court and the political arena to preserve its ability to treat patients. It’s now facing its most formidable challenge: the nomination of conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the seat vacated by Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.

Fast Company: What is Planned Parenthood’s strategy around the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett?

Alexis McGill Johnson: The fact that President Trump has nominated anyone to fill Justice Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat in this moment of national crisis is a direct threat to our health and rights and a disgrace to our democracy. Donald Trump has made it clear that he would only appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, and his administration is currently asking the Supreme Court to dismantle the Affordable Care Act—we can’t afford to see this nomination succeed.

Senate Republican leadership is ramming through a confirmation process while continuing to ignore the harms wrought by the pandemic and our nation’s collective pain—it’s unacceptable, and the majority of Americans agree. Planned Parenthood Action Fund is calling on the Senate to stick to the precedent their leadership set in 2016 and hold off on considering any nominee to replace Justice Ginsburg until after Inauguration Day. Every generation has their fight, and this is ours.

Alexis McGill Johnson

FC: Do you see the next month as a fight for Planned Parenthood’s very existence?

AMJ: A record-high 77% of Americans say they do not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, and there is no state in this country where making abortion illegal is popular. We’re over 100 years old and not going anywhere.

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But at the same time, there are 17 abortion-related cases just one step from the Supreme Court, including a case about a six-week abortion ban in Georgia that would criminalize abortion before many women even know they’re pregnant. Abortion care is already inaccessible for too many women across the country living in states with restrictions that make abortion legal in name only. For patients everywhere, this is a fight for their lives.

FC: If Planned Parenthood loses the fight over Barrett’s confirmation, where will you focus your political efforts next?

AMJ: For many people, abortion is already a right in name only—and as reproductive justice organizations have argued for years, Roe is the floor, not the ceiling. If Roe falls, the issue falls back to the states. We already know what happens when politicians are emboldened by President Trump and Senator McConnell to attack abortion access: After the Senate confirmed Justice Kavanaugh, state politicians worked quickly to introduce more than 300 abortion restrictions and passed 25 abortion bans in a single year, many of which are working their way through the court systems right now.

If the ACA is struck down, 29.8 million people would lose their health insurance, pregnancy could be a preexisting condition again, and you’d once again have to pay out of pocket for preventive care. Every single person deserves to have access to healthcare, regardless of their income or zip code. Abortion is essential healthcare—nearly one in four women will have an abortion in her lifetime. Birth control is healthcare. And no one should take the right to access that healthcare away from you.

FC: How has Planned Parenthood been able to continue providing essential care for those who need it during the pandemic?

AMJ: In the beginning, it was hard to navigate safety for our workers and staff. There were also a number of patients who [avoided] getting care because they were worried about the pandemic: STI rates have skyrocketed because people haven’t gone in for care. But there is also a big opportunity. At the height of the pandemic, between April and June, Planned Parenthood health centers conducted nearly 800,000 visits—including telehealth visits—to get people what they need. During [that stage of] the pandemic we were able to ensure that our telehealth work, which has been about 10 years in the making, got up and running in all 50 states.

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There have been all these ways telehealth has transformed how we can access our patients, but we still need to pay attention to the reason there is a racial divide when it comes to accessing telehealth.”

FC: Planned Parenthood has been investing in telemedicine. Can you envision a future in which a majority of the care that you provide either starts there or even ends there?

AMJ: It’s hard for many of our patients to receive this kind of care because of [lack of] access to broadband. We traditionally have not been engaged in issues like this, [but] they actually impact the conditions under which we provide care. It has started conversations internally about the ways we need to show up. Fighting for access to healthcare might mean fighting for broadband equity or making sure that Medicaid reimbursement rates for telehealth service are comparable to in-person visits. There have been all these ways telehealth has transformed how we can access our patients, but we still need to pay attention to the reason there is a racial divide when it comes to accessing telehealth. And racism is a public health crisis in itself.

FC: Access to abortion, contraception, and other reproductive and sexual healthcare have disproportionately affected Black people. Yet the leadership of reproductive justice groups is predominantly white. The CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater New York was ousted in late June after being accused of racism and mismanagement by staff members. How are you thinking about that?

AMJ: As an organization, we are over 100 years old. There’s no institution in this country that’s not implicated by growing up in a world of white supremacy and misogyny. So we have to find a systemic solution to a systemic problem.

I’ve done a lot of work over the years around implicit bias and how it shows up in microaggressions. Those are things I’m personally familiar with as a Black woman who’s navigated other institutions and even Planned Parenthood. Our systemic response begins with thinking about how we are going to benchmark [our diversity and inclusion work] and how we’re going to be evidence-driven and data-driven. We need to think about the patient experience and look at the blind spots and biases that we might have or that our providers might have. In a crisis, this kind of work is the first thing many organizations choose to forgo. But equity is a strategic imperative for us so that we can deliver the right care.

Everybody is sacrificing something to be part of a larger movement, like the election. And then afterwards you go back to fighting for your agenda. That’s what is happening now.”

FC: It’s been nearly four years since the Women’s March. What impact do you think that movement had?

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AMJ: If or when Biden and Harris win, it will be because young people, BIPOC, women, drove that turnout. If that happens, it will be because of grassroots organizing. I’ve never seen outside infrastructure so coordinated and connected: It’s like the outside game is stronger than the inside game.

My career in politics has been defined by everyone asking, “How big a coalition can we create?” Everybody is sacrificing something to be part of a larger movement, like the election. And then afterwards you go back to fighting for your agenda. That’s what is happening now. We’re building an intersectional infrastructure: I need to understand the asks of the immigration crisis community, I need to be able to carry water for the climate-change workers, for racial justice. [And I need] to be able to understand how sexual reproductive health intersects with their issues so that when I am advocating for us, I am also advocating for them.

FC: How has COVID affected the way you mobilize people around these issues?

AMJ: Like other organizations, we’ve also had to pivot from in-person events to doing events online. That has not fazed our members: Planned Parenthood Action Fund has held and is continuing to have virtual conversations with candidates via Zoom and digital conversations about what’s on members’ hearts and minds.

But we also know people are more fired up than ever—take a look across the country. People are organizing, they’re taking these movements and making them their own. And as voting begins, it’s clear that they’re taking their fight to the ballot box.

FC: 2020 has been a year of extremes. How do you keep a complex organization such as Planned Parenthood—with both a headquarters and a robust network of affiliates—resilient?

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AMJ: We have a very developed scenario-planning muscle as a federation. We plan scenarios for the possible outcomes of an election or shifts in legislative policy agendas. I think that has gotten even stronger at this moment. We’re always solving for expanding access, driving impact, and building power. That has helped us be very resilient at this moment because we are prepared for potential outcomes. We’ve been scenario planning for the end of Roe, for example. We have a plan for everything, though I will say the pandemic has added more factors to it.

FC: You lead a polarizing organization at a polarizing time in America. How have you been navigating, on a personal level, the emotional toll of having to do such high-stakes work every day?

AMJ: I think my academic training [teaching political science at Yale and Wesleyan University] has helped me look at the big picture and keep looking for lessons. I like to systematically test assumptions about what will drive change and let go of pieces that don’t work. That mentality is what I’m trying to bring to the organization. Separately I think it’s important to trust people and let them take care of their family’s needs. We need to let staff take care of themselves.

FC: How has the pandemic shaped your leadership style?

AMJ: Both the pandemic and the protests of racial injustice have made me realize that I can’t waste time, I can’t be incremental, and that the only way to lead is to be my authentic self. I don’t know that I would ever feel as free in leadership as I do now, as a Black woman. I can’t afford to compromise my values or viewpoint when it comes to addressing the public health crises of the pandemic and racism.

FC: Around the time that she stepped down as Planned Parenthood president, Cecile Richards said that she was most proud of three things: making birth control free for women with health insurance, lowering teen pregnancy rates, and lowering the rate of unintended pregnancies. What do you want your legacy to be?

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AMJ: I joined the board in 2010, so I’m thinking about what takes us to 2030. I want to prove that a model where we invest in equity works, where you can get a return on that investment. I want to prove that centering equity will move us forward. I think back on the Women’s March: Across generations, many people were feeling, like, “I thought this was settled.” We need to remember that we’re never settled. I want every generation to remember that.


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