Planned Parenthood ex-CEO writes letter to board amid severance dispute

The following is a letter that Dr. Leana Wen, the former president of Planned Parenthood, was said to have sent via email to the group's board on Sept. 9.

Dear Board members,

My last day as your President/CEO was July 16th, 2019. It was not my desire to leave the organization, and certainly not my desire to leave without saying goodbye to you. Unfortunately, despite many requests by myself, through trusted proxies, and via attorneys, the PPFA Board Chair denied me the opportunity to address you directly. I was threatened with legal action if I were to contact you in any way, and I was not informed of the time of the Board meeting until 20 minutes before it started.

I had hoped to speak with you, in person, so that you could hear three things from me. First, I wanted to thank you for your service and leadership. As CEO, I reported to the Board, and I owe you the courtesy of thanking you myself. I have seen how committed you are to sexual and reproductive health and rights, and it has been an incredible privilege to work with and for such dedicated people. I know that you give your heart and soul to Planned Parenthood, the work it does, and what the organization and the movement stand for. Thank you.

Second, I’d requested to speak with you about my concerns for the direction and future of Planned Parenthood. As you know from our Board discussions, individual conversations, and my public commentary, I have always felt strongly that Planned Parenthood must be foremost a healthcare organization, providing comprehensive, community-based healthcare services to women and all people who are the most vulnerable. Contextualizing—rather than emphasizing—abortion care is the best way to protect it, and Planned Parenthood’s distinctive role within the movement is to be the “big tent”. Based on my affiliate travels, donor conversations, and partner meetings, I believe this represents the view of the majority of Planned Parenthood supporters; however, there is a vocal minority (including many national office staff and powerful voices on the PPFA/PPAF Boards) who prefer a stridently political, abortion-first philosophy. With 2020 approaching and the multitude of restrictive state laws being passed, this is not an unreasonable approach—but it is one that the Federation as a whole should agree to, rather than have the activist voices dominate by default.

Third, I would have wanted to say to you that with the Board dynamics as they were, I was being set up to fail as your President/CEO. When I was hired, the Board asked me to lead major organizational change that included substantial restructuring and instituting processes to ensure accountability, transparency, and efficiency. Such change was met with staff resistance, which I expected. What did I not expect was for the Board Chairs to actively encourage staff and former staff complaints and even go so far as to demand that I terminate certain staff and promote others in ways that raised legal concerns.No CEO can be successful when the Board empowers staff to make end-runs around the CEO. No organization can be functional when there are Board members who constantly interfere with day-to-day operations and undermine the CEO’s decisions to staff, partners, and the media. The price of failure is the health and rights for generations to come, and I would not have wanted to be the leader that lets down this organization—and I know that this is not what you, as the Board, would want either.

Since my departure, I have become aware that many Board members did not know about my repeated requests to address the Board to surface these critical issues. I have also become aware that Board members do not know the attempts by the PPFA Board Chair to buy my silence. Throughout the negotiation before and after my termination, I made it clear that I would abide by confidentiality requirements under common law and in my original employment contract. I would never even think to disclose proprietary information (such as patient information, donor lists, business operations, trade secrets, etc). However, I could not sign a gag order on my experiences and reflections of my service to Planned Parenthood. On July 16th, despite extraordinary pressure and substantial financial incentives from the Board Chair, I chose to not to sign a resignation agreement that contained a permanent gag on my voice as a public health expert. To be clear: no amount of money can ever buy my integrity and my commitment to the patients I serve.

Now, the PPFA Board Chair is refusing to honor the terms of my employment contract, by refusing to pay my guaranteed severance and COBRA health insurance unless I consent to this gag order once again. This is unjust, unethical, and a breach of my contract with PPFA. A gag order was not imposed on my predecessor, Cecile Richards, who (just as her predecessors Gloria Feldt and Faye Wattleton did) even wrote a book about her Planned Parenthood experiences. And it is deeply hypocritical that PPFA would attempt to enforce a gag order on its immediate past President/CEO while fighting the Trump administration’s gag rule on Title X providers.

Refusing to honor my employment contract is also hurtful. I have given all of myself to Planned Parenthood and our mission. In nine months, I had visited 26 affiliates and conducted hundreds of partner and donor meetings. Most weeks, I was away from my family every weekday and worked throughout the weekend. My now-two-year old son, Eli, began to cry every time I came home, because he saw me a stranger in our own home. My family and I endured constant threats to our safety and security, with vitriol often directed at Eli. Sebastian, my husband, put his career on hold as I became the sole income-earner. We purchased a house in Washington, D.C. that we then had to incur significant cost to withdraw from. And, as you know, we suffered a personal tragedy with my miscarriage in June.

Some of you have asked me specifically about this, and here is my response: I have no desire to file claims against Planned Parenthood for defamation, retaliation, or discrimination. I have no desire to harm the organization—in fact, I want more than anything to move on and continue my life’s work in public health, to support Planned Parenthood as a partner in the movement, and to spend time with my growing family (the happy news in this email is that we’re expecting and look forward to Eli having a brother or sister by the end of March!). My service to Planned Parenthood has left my family with upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal fees, relocation costs, and even expenses to remove the security equipment that PPFA installed in my house. Not to mention health insurance benefits—which my entire family depends on—that are now being held as a bargaining chip, in direct violation of PPFA’s contractual obligations.

Unless the position currently being taking taken is reversed, PPFA will be in breach of my contract by the end of the week. I have made it very clear in my negotiations that I will comply with relevant law. I have repeatedly offered to sign a separation agreement with what the parties originally intended. Instead, PPFA insists on a gag order as ransom in exchange for my contractually-guaranteed severance and continued health insurance coverage.

Before a unilateral decision is made by the Board Chair that could have significant consequences, I believe that you as the Board should be aware of this unfortunate situation and have the opportunity to voice your opinion. I believe you would want to do the right thing, both for something as small as treating a former employee fairly, and as momentous as taking on the long-term charge to clarify the vision of the Federation and to reform the Board governance so that Planned Parenthood can be the high-functioning organization that our patients, our country, and our world needs it to be.

Thank you for being the heroes that I have had the great privilege and honor of serving with. I hope that one day in the future, we will be able to work together again, as we are united in our passion to improve health and safeguard rights for all those who need our care.