Leana Wen and the Stigma of the ‘Rare’ Abortion

Image: Associated Press

After largely being omitted from previous debates, Tuesday’s night Democratic presidential debate featured, finally, a discussion on abortion rights. While most candidates made impassioned—if oddly worded (cough Kamala Harris cough) and deliberately vague—calls for reproductive rights, Tulsi Gabbard staked out a position that today is at odds with her Democratic peers.

“I agree with Hillary Clinton on one thing,” she said. “In the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president and she said abortion should be safe, legal, and rare, I think she’s correct.”

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Gabbard’s statement harkened back to a time when the Party’s language on abortion rights was chosen largely in defense against rightwing religious attacks. But framing abortion—an extremely common procedure—as one that should be “rare” serves only to aid efforts to vilify people who get and perform abortions. As the researcher Tracy Weitz wrote in 2010, “adoption of the mantra that abortion should be rare increases the stigma associated with abortion,” adding that a far better alternative would be to “recognize the importance of abortion access for women and the meaning of abortion for women’s equality.” Most abortion reproductive rights advocates (and even Hillary Clinton, who adopted the line during her presidential run in 2008 but then dropped it in 2016) have moved away from this language. But at least one prominent advocate—Dr. Leana Wen, the ousted former president of Planned Parenthood—agreed with Gabbard.

On Tuesday night, Wen, who was pushed out of the organization, in part, for her more conservative (and I would argue naive) views on how to protect and expand abortion access at a time when these rights are under increasing attack, wrote in a tweet that she appreciated Gabbard’s assertion that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” and that “we should reduce the need for abortions by investing in prevention.” She followed that up by adding that it was “courageous” of Gabbard to “bring up nuances,” given that many Americans “both personally oppose abortion” and “feel uncomfortable” as well as “support others’ right to choose.” After many people responded to Wen by pointing out that these beliefs serve only to stigmatize abortion, Wen decided to double down on her belief, writing on Wednesday morning that abortion rights advocates “will lose unless we allow more people to join who do not agree 100% with the most extreme ideology.”

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She continued, “If we understand reproductive healthcare to be the standard healthcare that it is, then use the language of public health. Take heart surgery. It’s a procedure that should be available if needed, but prevention is the best medicine. Access is not in conflict with prevention.”

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Wen is not incorrect in pointing out that many people have complicated views on abortion. But her framing of abortion, and her painting a necessary defense of abortion as “extreme ideology,” serves to underscore what Wen has already made clear, both during her short tenure at Planned Parenthood and in op-eds and interviews after she was ousted—her fundamental misunderstanding of abortion politics, and what it will take to make abortion accessible to all who wish to get an abortion. As my Jezebel colleague Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote recently in response to an op-ed Wen wrote in the New York Times, “It is impossible to depoliticize a right, abortion, as well as an organization, Planned Parenthood, that has been forcibly politicized for its entire 103-year existence by those who want the right to be abolished and the organization to cease existing.”

The history of the phrase “safe, legal, and rare” and its deployment, most prominently, by Bill Clinton in the early 1990s is perhaps the best argument against the logic espoused by Wen and Gabbard (and, I suspect, many others in the Democratic establishment). For years, Democrats parroted this idea—yet attacks on abortion access not only continued, but increased. To say that abortion should be “rare” automatically assumes a few dangerous notions: that abortions, as Weitz wrote, are “happening more than [they] should, and that there are some conditions for which abortions should and should not occur.” The notion that abortions should be “rare” created both a political and rhetorical climate that demonized the organizations offering these supposedly misguided abortions, helping to lead to the closure of clinics and the weakening of access.

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It’s past time we retire this talking point, and it’s alarming that Wen, who continues to wield influence despite no longer being the head of Planned Parenthood, continues to push it. Tip-toeing around the necessity of abortion access has for too long been seen as the way to push back against the anti-abortion movement. But considering the restrictive laws being passed today, and an upcoming Supreme Court case on abortion, it’s time for a better plan.

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