Why Planned Parenthood’s New President Is Actually Optimistic About Roe V. Wade’s Future

Courtesy of Leana Wen/Planned Parenthood

Forty-six years after the Supreme Court issued its landmark abortion decision, politicians continue to call for Roe v. Wade to be overturned or, at the very least, significantly dismantled. The confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in October stoked fears that the highest court could actually make that happen, while multiple states have moved to ban abortion before most people even know they're pregnant. In the face of all that, Planned Parenthood's new president, Dr. Leana Wen, says she has hope for Roe v. Wade still.

"Especially now with the Supreme Court, we’re dangerously close to a world that looks much like the one before Roe was decided in 1973," Wen tells Bustle. "We are, though, optimistic because we know what the American people want."

In contrast to Republican lawmakers' constant attacks on reproductive rights, only 18 percent of Americans think abortion should be illegal under any circumstances, according to Gallup — a statistic that hasn't changed much over the last two decades. Wen also points to the historic number of women, especially women of color, elected to Congress in the 2018 midterm elections as a sign that most Americans want leaders who will stand up for women's health care.

At the state level, six states gained new Democratic trifectas after those elections, meaning the party now holds the governor’s office and both state legislative chambers. Wen counts 25 governors nationwide who support reproductive health as well.

A "key part of the answer is with the states" when it comes to protecting reproductive rights, she explains.

Individual states would hold all the power to determine the legality of abortion within their borders if Roe did fall, and the Center for Reproductive Rights predicts that 22 states would be at risk of completely banning abortion if that were to happen. In January alone, state legislatures in Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Carolina proposed so-called "heartbeat bills" that would ban abortion as early as six weeks.

At the same time, Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court has propelled some states to more proactively protect and expand abortion rights. New York is poised to pass legislation codifying Roe v. Wade into state law on Tuesday. Similar legislation in Rhode Island has Gov. Gina Raimondo's support, and Michigan's new Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, vowed during the 2018 election to work with state lawmakers to eliminate a pre-Roe abortion ban that's still on the books there.

Of course, that's not the case in every state. Much of the South and the Midwest still has lawmakers in power who are determined to limit access to abortion. Wen says she expects advocates in more than half of states to aggressively push for policies that expand and protect access to reproductive health in the 2019 legislative session.

"It’s working on all fronts — it’s working in the courts; continuing our work in the ballot boxes; pushing our states to repeal the bad laws [and] to put forward proactive legislation to expand access," Dr. Wen says.

She adds that it's vital that advocates work with newly-elected leaders in Congress to fight back against the Trump administration's "erroneous restrictions on reproductive health care."

The threat to Roe v. Wade isn't hypothetical, she explains. But despite continued attacks on abortion access at every level of government, she believes reproductive rights advocates' efforts are paying off now more than ever — especially at the ballot box.

"That’s why this is the fight of our time," Dr. Wen says. "That’s why we need everyone to continue fighting with us."