New Planned Parenthood president dismisses reports on internal strife, talks efforts combatting Michigan anti-abortion initiatives

By: - August 7, 2019 7:45 am

“Stop the Bans” pro-choice rally, May 21, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Alexis McGill Johnson has taken the helm of Planned Parenthood as reproductive rights are under assault across the country.

Alexis McGill Johnson

In Michigan, a state panel has approved ballot language for two citizen petitions, one which would ban abortion around six weeks of pregnancy and another that outlaws a common second-trimester procedure, dilation and evacuation (D&E). 

The twist on these measures is that if they amass the 340,047 signatures required, the GOP-controlled Michigan Legislature can adopt them before they go on the ballot — and pro-choice Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer doesn’t have the right to veto.

Will Michigan have 2 abortion bans on the 2020 ballot? Probably not.

“They’ve actually been pretty public about that, that there’s no intent to put it on the ballot, said Lori Carpentier, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan and Planned Parenthood of Michigan. “So I think that it’s an end-run around democracy.”

Both Carpentier and McGill Johnson, the new interim president of both the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, talked last week to the Michigan Advance about their strategy for opposing the anti-abortion measures. The Advance also asked if there will be a counter-initiative, perhaps to enshrine the right to privacy in the Michigan Constitution in case the U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturns Roe v. Wade.

Lori Carpentier | Ken Coleman

Carpentier said there are ongoing discussions, adding, “We’re trying to figure out what is the most viable thing that would reflect the will of the people of Michigan.”

There have been a number of national stories about internal divisions within the national Planned Parenthood organization, with its board removing Dr. Lena Wen after less than a year as president. There reportedly was a split between Wen, who wanted to stress that abortion is an essential part of health care, and others who believed that Planned Parenthood should continue its political push started under former President Cecile Richards, who spoke at an Ann Arbor pro-choice rally in May.

McGill Johnson said “that narrative … is not accurate at all.

“Planned Parenthood is primarily a health care provider. That’s our mission; that’s kind of our bottom line,” she said. “… But at the same time, it is really important that in order to access health care, that our Planned Parenthood health centers stay open.”

McGill Johnson also told the Advance she’s been “disappointed” with the lack of time devoted to reproductive rights in the Democratic presidential debates, including the two held last week in Detroit. She said she will be traveling to other states after Michigan and is planning to stay on in the role through December 2020. 

Planned Parenthood president pans Detroit debates for ignoring reproductive rights

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: There have been some national stories about an internal conflict at the national level of Planned Parenthood over the direction of the organization under Dr. Wen, whether to focus on politics or making the case that abortion is health care. So what is Planned Parenthood’s focus at this point?

McGill Johnson: Well, thanks for your question, Susan. I think it’s been unfortunate that that narrative, which is not accurate at all, has been put out there. It’s really a false situation, as we see it. Planned Parenthood is primarily a health care provider. That’s our mission; that’s kind of our bottom line. We’ve been focused on providing health care, sexual and reproductive health care for millions of people, and they are at the center of our work. 

But at the same time, it is really important that in order to access health care, that our Planned Parenthood health centers stay open. With the number of restrictions and bans and the ‘gag rule’ with Title X [family planning program funding], it continues to be critically important for us to defend the right to access it.

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So the idea … are we political or health care, it’s just not an accurate framing and it’s a false choice. We have been politicized, health care is politicized as we talked at the very beginning. … The Democratic candidates spoke at length [at the July 30 debate] for 45 minutes about health care, because ensuring that … every American has access to health care in their state is of critical importance. So I just think the framing is off there, and I think we stand by the health care provision that we offer.

Michigan Advance: So the stories about these divisions within the organization are not correct?

McGill Johnson: Absolutely, not at all.

Michigan Advance: For years, pro-choice advocates have been sounding the alarm about the state of reproductive rights in this country and in the states. A lot of the national punditry has been that the situation isn’t dire, that it’s kind of a ‘boy crying wolf’ situation. Given the state of the U.S. Supreme Court and with so much action in states in recent years, how endangered are reproductive rights? Do you expect a full ban on abortion sooner than later?

Alexis McGill Johnson: It’s hard to tell. We don’t have a crystal ball on that, but we do know that there are 15 cases, and any one of which can be taken in the next two years that would … call Roe into question. 

Ironically, the courts have been a place that we sought refuge in to protect access and to ensure that we could continue to provide the care that we do, and yet here we are now looking to Congress to actually help us protect things. Not just abortion, but things like access to contraception through Title X. So yes, the question of the dire warning on the court level is critical.

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There is also a question about the number of restrictions and bans that have happened. Since … 2011, when I joined the national board, there have been 430 restrictions against abortion and access. … I think there are a lot of [people] who are living in abortion deserts, where getting meaningful access to health care is limited. So yeah, I do worry about that. It keeps me up at night.

Michigan Advance: How is Planned Parenthood planning to fight the two abortion ban ballot measures that don’t even need the governor’s signature here?

Lori Carpentier: Not only do they not need the governor’s signature, but I think this is a pointed effort to go around the governor … because they know they wouldn’t get the signature — which is a tactic Right to Life of Michigan has used a number of times. We think it’s not democratic. I think they’re not being honest about the intent. As they gather signatures, it’s ostensibly … to put it on the ballot, but I think we know that there’s no intent for that. They’ve actually been pretty public about that, that there’s no intent to put it on the ballot.

So I think that it’s an end-run around democracy. And we have this ballot initiative opportunity in the state of Michigan and under our Michigan Constitution, so that voters could have a say in how laws were made. And I think this is really subverting that intent. 

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We’re hoping that people will not sign. We’re hoping that they will understand the dire nature of what it means to get in between a doctor’s good judgment of what they should do for a patient that’s in front of them at any one given time. And whenever you start writing legislation to mandate how doctors behave, that becomes a dangerous situation … because no Legislature ought to be writing medical care. So not only is it bad policy, but it’s bad medicine. And I think we really need to point that out.

If it happens, we will challenge it in court, because I think it is absolutely against the tenets of Roe and until that is no longer the law of the land, we will use that avenue to say this is unconstitutional.

Michigan Advance: Given the fact that it essentially only takes about 3% of the Michigan population to get enough signatures, is there any effort underway for a counter-ballot proposal — one that might supersede these initiatives?

Carpentier: I think we haven’t made that decision at all. We’re trying to figure out what it is that Michiganders really think they would support in terms of protecting a woman’s right to body autonomy and to making this decision. So we’re sort of looking at that. It’s not out of the question that we may choose to do something proactive. 

And in the meantime, we are certainly pointing out that our legislators are not taking up bills that would mean that more young people would have access to sexual reproductive health education in the context of their schools. We’re pointing out that patients all over the state of Michigan will be denied access to care through the funding of Title X that provides contraceptive care to patients. We’re also looking at ways that they’re trying to restrict abortion access.

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So this is really an effort to control women, and I think we want to point that out. And I think that they should take this at their peril. In Michigan, specifically, but countrywide, women are 51% of the electorate, and they are looking and paying attention.

McGill Johnson: Just to add to that, I think they do it at their own peril because they’re completely defying where the American people stand on this. Support for reproductive health care is at an all-time high. I don’t know if you’ve seen the polls, but there’s a record high of 77% of Americans who say they don’t want to see Roe overturned. So to create these restrictions, these bans that would be chipping away at abortion, in particular, is incredibly unpopular.

Michigan Advance: So if Roe were overturned, Michigan is one of the states where we would revert back and abortion would be illegal. Is there any interest in doing a broad ballot proposal to enshrine the right to privacy in the Constitution? I know that’s something people have been talking about.

Carpentier: Yeah, I think that all of these things are sort of in the hopper, Susan. We’re trying to figure out what is the most viable thing that would reflect the will of the people of Michigan. We’ll see where that lands.

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Michigan Advance: Some voters thought that in 2016 that Donald Trump wouldn’t be as hardline on abortion than other Republicans have been in recent decades. Do you think that his myriad anti-abortion policies have ended up hurting him with the electorate, especially with women?

McGill Johnson: Yes, absolutely. I think voters issued a clear mandate in 2018 during midterms that they wanted more access to health care in policies, more focus on protecting their rights and freedoms, and any reproductive health care that does not include safe and legal abortion is not going to be acceptable.

… Eight in 10 Iowans in the Democratic caucus in Iowa recognized the fact that health care and access to reproductive health care is a must-have, and that’s 85% of women. So yes, he’s hurt himself, and the candidates that we’re hoping to hear from tonight need to understand that providing their plan is going to be critically important.

Carpentier: And nowhere was that more clear than in Michigan. In ’16, we all know what the outcomes were [Trump won the state and the presidency], but in ’18, we had a diametrically opposed outcome where we elected up and down the ticket at the state level, a strongly pro-choice female governor [Whitmer], secretary of state [Jocelyn Benson], attorney general [Dana Nessel] and [U.S.] senator [Debbie Stabenow]. 

So I think … if you look at the demographics, Susan, in 2016, there were a number of educated white women in the suburbs that voted for Mr. Trump … I would say maybe with their husbands’ businesses in some ways, and have come back really in large, large numbers. And the 2018 election really demonstrated that completely.

Dana Nessel | Susan J. Demas

Michigan Advance: How much different is the landscape for reproductive rights in Michigan and for Planned Parenthood having pro-choice women running Michigan now? Especially having a pro-choice governor and a pro-choice attorney general?

Carpentier: You know, this is one of those things that took us a minute. Early after the election, we had the opportunity to meet with some of Attorney General Nessel’s folks. And we didn’t even know where the office was, because we hadn’t been there in so long. We’ve really had to get our head around it in different ways. 

Obviously, the people’s referendum notwithstanding, we will have an absolute defender in Gov. Whitmer, and we know that. She has never blinked. She has never wavered. And I think we also know that Attorney General Nessel will give very careful consideration to any case or situation that she would be asked to abide. She stands firmly with a set of values that we really support, as well. It’s like night and day. 

Now, of course, Michigan Right to Life has chosen to use the people’s referendum to go around that in a way, like I said, that I think is pretty undemocratic. But on all other things, this is going to be a very important moment.

Nessel: Roe v. Wade will be overturned, won’t prosecute women for abortions

Michigan Advance: What did you think about state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) threatening to impeach Attorney General Nessel for saying that she would not prosecute people if Roe was overturned?

Carpentier: Yeah, I think Mr. Shirkey and Attorney General Nessel don’t see eye-to-eye on much, and I would say that it’s another pandering to the base. It’s very ideological, etc. We haven’t seen anything come of it and I hope we are in a position where we never have to because Michigan is a state that will choose to protect women’s access to reproductive health.

Michigan Advance: Is there anything that you’re looking for in the state budget process, Lori, in terms of women’s health?

Carpentier: … I’m sure you’re aware, Susan, that with the implementation of the federal gag rule on Title X funding, we are one of 30 providers of Title X in the state. … Title X services to patients in the state of Michigan, but we see 70% of those patients. So it would have a ginormous impact. 

… And I should remind you that under the boilerplate language that exists, Planned Parenthood is already deprioritized for that funding. So everybody else bites the apple first and we get what’s left. And even in that situation, we see 70%. 

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So it is a moment where a significant portion of the 50,000 women that we serve on an annual basis could end up without access to care. It could prove to have the exact effect that they are saying they don’t want. If you reduce access to basic, preventative reproductive health care, it is predictable that you will have more unintended pregnancies, which statistically will result in an increased number of abortions. That’s the grand irony in what they’re trying to do.

… Of course, the people that are most disproportionately affected by that is women of color, young women, poor women, rural women. … It’s the folks that already are not in the most advantaged situation that would feel that most profoundly.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ+ people, the state budget, the economy and more.