During the inaugural Health Workforce Equity Summit, Leana Wen said that it is a critical time to be part of the reproductive health workforce.
By Briahnna Brown
More than 300 bills seeking to restrict access to abortion care have been filed in 47 states in 2019, putting reproductive healthcare in crisis, Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said Wednesday.
Dr. Wen, who is also an adjunct associate professor of emergency medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine, said Planned Parenthood declared a state of emergency for women’s health on May 30 in response to controversial laws that ban abortion in Georgia and Alabama. The laws criminalize doctors who provide abortions, she said, and is part of a larger effort to challenge Roe v. Wade in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Dr. Wen delivered the keynote address at the inaugural Health Workforce Equity Summit, sponsored by the Fitzhugh Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity at GW’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. The theme for this year’s summit was “Reproductive Health in Crisis: What Workforce Strategies are Needed?” and sought to address workforce pipeline and distribution issues as well as challenges with recruitment and retention in the reproductive healthcare sector.
Challenges to abortion access have been especially restrictive in Missouri, Dr. Wen added. The Planned Parenthood center there is the only abortion care provider remaining in the state. The state imposed a series of barriers to access, such as a 72-hour waiting period between a consultation and the procedure, she said, and “trap” regulations that forced the center to meet the standards of surgical centers even though abortion is an outpatient procedure.
She added that the state took “intimidation of physicians to a whole new level” by trying to require for the center’s license renewal that center doctors and trainees to be subject to interrogation that could result in the loss of medical licenses. A state court protected abortion access for the center, she said, but the legal battle is ongoing in Missouri as it is in states across the country.
"We are here, proudly, defiantly, because we need to be, because our patients depend on us,” Dr. Wen said.
Last April, the Milken Institute SPH renamed the GW Health Workforce Institute the Fitzhugh Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity in order to honor Fitzhugh Mullan, a professor of health policy and management and his lifelong commitment to social justice, health equity and health workforce policies. The Summit is the first of a series of events the Institute plans to host in the coming year.
In states that limit and restrict abortion access, Dr. Wen said, there are also poor health outcomes for women because their need for reproductive healthcare also goes unmet. Women of reproductive age are dying at higher rates, sexually transmitted infection rates are skyrocketing and the maternal mortality rate is higher now than it was 30 years ago. There are also major disparities within the maternal mortality rates, with African-American women being three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy than a white woman, and a woman in Georgia being more likely to die from pregnancy than a woman in California.
Addressing shortages in the reproductive health workforce is the root of addressing this unmet need, Dr. Wen said.
“I think we can agree we should be providing more care, not taking it away," she said. “A right is not a right if there is literally no access, and there can be no access if there is no one there to provide that care."
Planned Parenthood launched an abortion care provider recruitment pilot project in April 2018 to help start a potential service corps and supply providers to areas with unmet need. To further address these shortages, Dr. Wen said, the healthcare industry needs all hands on deck because there is a great need for creative solutions to combat the challenges that reproductive healthcare faces.
“As long as reproductive healthcare is siloed, attacked and stigmatized, our patients’ lives will be on the line,” Dr. Wen said. “As medical and public health professionals, we have a duty to use our voice and our credibility to reframe the narrative.
“We need you to join us to speak up on what we know to be true, that abortion care is part of the full spectrum of reproductive healthcare, that reproductive healthcare is healthcare, and that healthcare is a fundamental, human right that must be guaranteed to all, not a privilege that's only available to some.”