It was mid-August, and just weeks into her new job as acting president/CEO of the Planned Parenthood Federation of American and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Alexis McGill Johnson was out front, defending the organization from attack.
On that day, McGill Johnson said that Planned Parenthood would be pulling out of the Title X program, sending a message to the organization’s opponents, supporters and patients that Planned Parenthood would not be cowed by the actions of the Trump/Pence administration—which, in February, mandated that access to the federal government’s Title X funds be contingent upon not telling patients where they can access an abortion.
“Today we are announcing that due to an unethical and dangerous gag rule, the Trump administration has forced Planned Parenthood grantees out of Title X, the 50-year-old federal program for affordable birth control and reproductive health care. Our affiliate grantees will be submitting letters saying as much to HHS today,” McGill Johnson said on a phone call to news organizations, including The Root.
“Planned Parenthood is still open,” McGill Johnson continued defiantly. “Our doors are open today and our doors will be open tomorrow. We are doing everything we can to make sure our patients don’t lose care. I want our patients to know, while the Trump administration has given up on you, we never will.”
McGill Johnson pointed out that the millions lost by withdrawing from Title X would undoubtedly harm those who are low-income, uninsured, and living in rural areas, including the nearly three-quarters of a million black women who receive their annual pap smears, birth control, and cancer screenings through Planned Parenthood centers which were Title X-funded. Since that announcement, two Ohio clinics have closed, a travesty since Cincinnati has the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea infections of any city in the state—and because those two clinics didn’t even offer abortions.
“We are clearly and primarily a healthcare provider,” McGill Johnson told The Root. “We are an abortion provider, but our defense of access is part and parcel to the work we do. Because we can provide the care, but if a center is not open or available for people to get into it, health care is meaningless.”
McGill Johnson, who took over the 103-year-old organization in July, steps into the leadership of Planned Parenthood at a critical time in its history; clearly, PP is facing an existential crisis, driven in large part by sustained, concerted, and well-funded efforts to critically wound the outfit by any means.
The assaults on women and their reproductive choices are careening forward with breakneck speed from the White House to statehouses. In the past year, there have been 26 abortion bans in 12 states; there’s the new Title X mandate and the decades-old Hyde Amendment, which prevents women from using Medicaid for abortions; as well as the frenzied confirmation process of conservative judges under Trump, with the understanding that the eventual plan is to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling which guarantees American women the right to a safe and legal abortion.
In short, McGill Johnson has a big fight ahead of her, but unlike her predecessor Dr. Leana Wen, the first medical doctor to run the storied organization who unceremoniously left Planned Parenthood after only 10 months, McGill Johnson has been honing her chops for battle. She has been in the trenches of PP for many years—with leadership roles on the boards of both PPFA and of its Action Fund and PAC. She has also long worked in the social justice space, beginning in 2004, as the executive director of Citizen Change and their “Vote or Die” campaign. Later, she founded the Perception Institute, a research group working to reduce bias, stereotyping and discrimination.
Even so, she recognizes the precarious time in which we find ourselves, with the federal right to an abortion hanging in the balance.
“It is a frightening time,” concedes McGill Johnson. “I started as a board leader in 2010, and right with the 2010 Congress, there were all of these bans and attacks. For so much of my time here, the organization and partner organizations have been able to rely on the court as a stop-gap. It’s very scary given the shift in the court, and the shift in the Supreme Court in particular, that a challenge to Roe will come at some point. We do have scenario planning around what the future of what abortion access will look like...but it will mean a set of states will go dark. Roe being overturned will kick it back to the states, and there will be some states with availability and others without, but we have a commitment to supporting our patients in getting the access to the care they need.”
When the dynamic force that was Cecile Richards stepped down as head of Planned Parenthood after more than a decade at the helm of the organization, there were immediate calls from those in the reproductive justice movement that a woman of color should run the storied, but embattled outfit—perhaps even a black feminist, given the intersectional nature of race, class and gender in healthcare, as well as the stark health disparities that black women in America face.
“Perhaps none of the challenges facing Planned Parenthood is as urgent as the racial and class divisions that shape how American women seek reproductive health care,” wrote Loretta Ross in an op-ed after Richards announced her pending departure. Black women account for 66% of new cases of HIV amongst all women; they also lack access to quality, culturally-competent healthcare for Black women, meaning the diseases they contract are more likely to be lethal, including breast cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Black women are also in a now well-documented maternal mortality crisis.
McGill Johnson, who says she came to the label “feminist” late, muses that she has always had the interests of black folk and black women in particular in mind.
“I was born in 1972, halfway between second-wave feminism and the Black Power movement, but we were always really ‘race folks’ growing up. My mom was certainly out fighting, had us out in marches. We wore dashikis and I had afro puffs and the whole nine, but it was always about race consciousness,” she explains. “I think I was always raised that way by my mom and my aunties, and that upbringing does create a different lens through which we actually talk about access to freedom, right? To have the control of your own body that really speaks to me personally as a black woman in a freedom way that may be different for others.”
But her personal history may not be the history at issue. Planned Parenthood has often struggled to respond to allegations that Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist, and that PPFA is a genocidal project—a charge McGill Johnson disputes.
“As someone who’s dedicated a decade to this organization, I have investigated these claims and there’s no evidence to support that [Sanger] supported black genocide. But I still do think that there are questions that people have around how do we measure her up against through the lens of our time vs. her time?” McGill Johnson asks. “And I think it’s hard—the binary, right?—between her being good or bad. Obviously, it’s really important...that we continue to explore people’s perceptions of her and how some misinformation which has been used to actually attack the work that we do undermines our ability to actually deliver services...but I think that the bigger challenge is that we are connecting to our community in ways where people understand what we stand for. And I think that underlying message is that black women can’t make their own health decisions, and I think that anything that undermines that is something that we need to be involved in.”
And just as anti-choice opponents promote the myth that black women can’t do what’s right for themselves, they’ve also subtly framed black communities as anti-abortion and Planned Parenthood as a white organization.
“There actually is a huge amount of support for Planned Parenthood and abortion access in the black community; I think that’s something that we don’t often talk about or lead with, but it’s there because people do understand the impact that Planned Parenthood has had on their lives,” says McGill Johnson. “I mean, we serve almost 380,000 black patients and so thinking about the work that we do, and the work that I’ve done with our affiliates around bringing implicit bias and racial anxiety training to make a better patient experience and to improve compliance, those are the things that we do because we know how much our community does support our existence.”
McGill Johnson says her favorite part of the job is going into the black community and getting a pulse on how our communities are dealing with reproductive care, sex, and sexuality, and yes, abortion.
“That’s my happy space. I was in Detroit for the debates and had the opportunity to spend some time in one of the Planned Parenthood Michigan health centers and meet with a group of black women legislators and advocates,” she begins. She then recounted a story of a woman who was in a big box store with her daughter—a moment perhaps especially poignant for McGill Johnson, who says it is her two daughters, ages 7 and 10, who keep her grounded.
“Her daughter asked for condoms,” she recounts, “And [the mother] said, ‘Absolutely not. I’m not going to give you permission.’ And she was remarking how she felt bad about doing that, but that’s how she was raised, like ‘Absolutely not.’ And another woman said, ‘She’s not asking you for permission, she’s asking you for protection’ and that nugget was so important.”
McGill Johnson—feminist, activist, mother and wife—says she is fully committed to staying at the helm of PP through December 2020, and that there is a succession plan in place. But for this next year, rest assured, she is ready to fight for the rights of women and their reproductive choices.
“One of our concerns—my concerns—is the impact on women of color and how our communities end up suffering the most. I think that in terms of fighting back, we’re continuing to do what we always have. It’s the muscle that I think differentiates us.”