Editor’s Note: Dr. Leana Wen (@DrLeanaWen) is the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Previously, she was the health commissioner for the city of Baltimore. The views expressed here are solely hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In my life as an immigrant living in low-income communities, as an emergency physician and as a public health advocate, I have seen more preventable deaths than I can count or recall.
When I was 10 years old, my neighbor died in front of me of an asthma attack, because he and his family were undocumented immigrants and his grandmother was afraid of what would happen if they called an ambulance for help. I watched other neighbors cut their blood-pressure pills in half and ration their insulin, then succumb to consequences of untreated hypertension and diabetes – all because they couldn’t access affordable health care.
Later, as an emergency physician, I treated a young woman who was rushed into the ER by the paramedics. She was lying on a stretcher in a pool of blood, and, by the time she got to us, she was pulseless and unresponsive. It turned out that she didn’t have access to health care, so she had her cousin attempt an abortion on her, at home. We did everything we could to resuscitate her, but she died.
Over and over again, I have also seen our health care system fail women because of discriminatory policies.
One patient of mine – a mother of three – waited a full year before making an appointment to have a lump in her breast examined, and by the time I saw her, the cancer had spread throughout her body. She waited to seek medical attention because she lacked health insurance and had been too afraid to go to the doctor. But that fear had a cost: her life. Had her cancer been detected and treated earlier, she might have lived.
I also know – from my experiences as an 8-year-old girl new to this country, and my years as the health commissioner of Baltimore – that no one should fear seeking treatment because of their citizenship status, gender identity, income, sexual orientation, race or religion. Over the past century, Planned Parenthood has done so much to bring reproductive health care to millions of people.
Everything I’ve learned as a public health leader has led me to this conclusion: the threat to women’s health is the greatest public health catastrophe of our time. Planned Parenthood’s work – bringing affordable and accessible health care to as many women (and men and all people) as possible – isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s the urgent thing to do.
Keeping people unhealthy is a tool of oppression. People who aren’t healthy can’t participate fully in the economy. They may face barriers to care for their families. They may not be able to complete their education. The Trump administration knows this, and they have enacted many policies to take care – and power – away from women, LGBTQ communities, communities of color, people with low income and immigrants.
Already, one in five women in this country have been to Planned Parenthood for care. I am proud to include myself among them. Like a lot of young people, I knew I could rely on them for reproductive health care provided with compassion, respect and genuine concern. As president, I plan to continue that legacy.
Our mission – to provide care no matter what – is now more important than ever.
If you need proof, look at the Trump administration’s reaction to the midterms. After months of organizing, led largely by women and in particular women of color, the American people elected a record number of women and a wave of health care champions to the US Congress.
Yet, less than 24 hours later, the Trump administration finalized a rule that would allow employers to deny their employees birth control coverage if they cite religious objections. It’s 2018, and we’re still debating birth control! Nine out of 10 women will use contraceptives at some point in her lifetime. It’s standard health care. Just like breast exams. Just like well-woman exams. Just like abortion, which like birth control, is recognized in medicine to be part of the full spectrum of reproductive health care.
The Trump administration’s attack on birth control is only the latest in a series, including a gag rule and other changes to Title X, the nation’s only program for affordable birth control and other reproductive health care; changes to the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, which we fought in Baltimore (and won); and efforts to block people who rely on Medicaid from coming to Planned Parenthood for preventive health care, including birth control.
Meanwhile, with the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the right to safe, legal abortion is on the line like never before.
Already, there are significant barriers to accessing abortion. In the last seven years, over 400 laws have passed that directly restrict abortion care. Pretending they are trying to “protect women,” states like Missouri and North Carolina have enacted 72-hour waiting periods and others, like Iowa and soon Ohio, are passing laws outright banning abortions after six weeks, when many women don’t even know that they are pregnant.
If Roe v. Wade were overturned or further eroded, Planned Parenthood assesses that 25 million women – 1 in 3 women of reproductive age in this country – would be living in states where abortion is outlawed or even criminalized.
As a new Congress begins and new governors and state legislatures prepare to do the work of the people, they have a mandate – from women, LGBTQ people, immigrants, people of color and all who believe that health care is a human right – to fight for reproductive health care and women’s health care as the standard health care that they are.
The new political reality means we have an opportunity to expand access to care, and we are committed to rising to that challenge.
Our more than 600 health centers will continue to provide lifesaving and life-changing health care to our patients around the country, and we will continue to fight to defend access to that care – including the right to safe, legal abortion. As president, I will also look to expand our care, our services and our impact. We will focus on reducing health disparities and meeting the needs of women, families and communities.
There are battles ahead. But there also countless opportunities to build a healthier, more equitable world. At Planned Parenthood, we have never been more ready to make that world a reality.