The Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the nation’s largest provider of sex education with more than 600 health centers across the country, ushered in a new era in its nearly 104-year history on Friday, as its board of directors announced the appointment of Alexis McGill Johnson as permanent president and CEO of PPFA and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund (Action Fund). The decision came after nearly a year of McGill Johnson’s service as acting president and CEO, before which she spent a decade on the PPFA and Action Fund boards, including a past chairmanship of the PPFA board.
McGill Johnson will be the second African American to head the esteemed organization after trailblazer Faye Wattleton, who led PPFA from 1978 10 1992 and is credited with transforming the organization “into the politically engaged entity that it is today, while at the same time dramatically increasing the range of its health-care services,” according to a statement provided to The Glow Up.
“I am so proud and humbled to have been named the permanent President and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund,” said McGill Johnson of her now-permanent role, adding:
Since I stepped into the acting role last year, Planned Parenthood has battled serious threats to patients’ care, from the exclusion of Planned Parenthood providers from Title X funding to states’ continued efforts to limit access to abortion and reproductive health care. We know the year ahead holds more challenges, as we await the June Medical Services v. Russo decision in the Supreme Court, face a long overdue public reckoning with systemic racism, and continue to battle COVID-19. Through it all, I have been grateful to the Planned Parenthood family for their dedication to this work. I have learned so much from Planned Parenthood patients, our staff, and our broader movement, and am honored to continue this fight with them, and for them. I look forward to the work ahead.
A joint statement from PPFA board Chair Aimee Cunningham and Action Fund Board Chair Jennie Rosenthal lauded McGill Johnson’s existing work in the role, reading, in part:
Throughout her life, Alexis has been a catalyst for social change and a warrior for justice and equity...Since becoming Acting President and CEO, Alexis has steered us through one of the most difficult times in our history with unfailing courage, tenacity, and resolve. As a proven trailblazer for reproductive rights and social change, Alexis is the right leader to take us into the next chapter of our history as we fight to create a world where every person is free to control their own body, destiny, and life.
As both statements indicate, McGill Johnson’s appointment comes at a pivotal moment in the fight for reproductive rights in America, as the Trump administration continues its attack on the protections established by Roe v. Wade. As mentioned, currently at stake is the Supreme Court’s pending decision on June Medical Services v. Russo, which could severely limit abortion access in the state of Louisiana as it had in neighboring Texas before subsequently being declared unconstitutional.
And then, there are Republicans’ efforts to leverage the pandemic to restrict abortion access, as several Republican-led states refused to qualify abortions as essential services during the lockdown. This, as Trump continued to staff federal courts with conservative judges: On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate confirmed Trump’s 200th federal judge appointee, attorney and former state legislator Cory Wilson (R-Miss.) to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Wilson has long advocated for the “complete and immediate” reversal of Roe v. Wade, aligning himself with the anti-abortion group Mississippi Right to Life as early as 2007.
Additionally, the New York Times reports that Democratic leaders consider the appointment of Wilson’s appointment “a slap in the face to Black Americans at a time when our country is working to take steps forward on racial justice, not backwards,” as articulated in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from Senators Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who also wrote:
“Judge Wilson has been an ardent supporter of restrictive voting measures, including voter ID laws, that disproportionately harm minority voters, and he has shown a pattern of dismissing legitimate concerns from voting rights groups.”
With Wilson’s confirmation, Trump and his enablers have succeeded in filling all vacant seats in the federal circuit courts, a fear McGill Johnson voiced when speaking with The Glow Up in May, just a few days after the killing of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests.
“It’s just the extreme work that they’ve done to impact [patients] broadly, but on Black patients—I mean, the impact that they’ve had is just unreal,” McGill Johnson told us. “So our focus is on fighting back; it’s continuing to build up muscle to push back on all of these restrictions and making sure that we’re also advancing opportunities for health care where we can.”
A Princeton and Yale-educated political scientist, educator and social justice leader who has taught political science and African-American studies at both Yale and Wesleyan University, McGill Johnson also co-founded the social change organization the Culture Group and anti-bias research consortium the Perception Institute (where she designed and implemented the Starbucks racial bias curriculum). Additionally, she serves on the boards of Color of Change, Revolutions Per Minute, and Narrative Initiative. With a comprehensive and very intimate lens on intersectionality, McGill Johnson is in a rare position to address the needs of the current moment.
Planned Parenthood’s own complicated history with race has also been brought to the fore in recent weeks. The organization’s founder, educator and activist Margaret Sanger, infamously aligned herself with early 20th century eugenists as she advocated for birth control in minority communities, where poverty was high and access to healthcare low. Echoes of that racist history resurfaced in allegations made in a June 18 open letter outlining the “racism and anti-Blackness” of PPFA affiliate Planned Parenthood of Greater New York under the leadership of now-former CEO Laura McQuade, signed by hundreds of current and former members of PPGNY. On Tuesday, McQuade officially “parted ways” with the organization after an abrupt about-face from the PPGNY board, which initially stood by her despite reported repeated prior complaints during her two-year tenure.
As our sister site Jezebel reported, McQuade’s departure may only hint at the systemic internal issues that need to be addressed throughout PPFA. As one Black PPGNY clinician disclosed to Jezebel on the condition of anonymity, “white supremacy is still so embedded into the function of the organization.”
It’s worth noting that even as acting president and CEO of the Federation, which is comprised of dozens of regional affiliates, McGill Johnson was not empowered to sanction or dismiss McQuade; that remains a responsibility of the affiliate’s board. However, she did not mince words in responding to the controversy, issuing a statement that read, in part:
Right now our country is in the middle of a racial justice reckoning—one that includes Planned Parenthood. We know we cannot address structural racism or white supremacy in this country without addressing our own. It spills out in the ways we have not yet successfully and publicly reckoned with our history, adequately supported the staff who make our work possible, and in the make-up of our leadership at national and affiliate levels. It ultimately stands in the way of fulfilling our mission.
McGill Johnson’s understanding of that mission is personal and crucial as PPFA not only faces an obstructive administration and potentially pivotal presidential election but continues to fight the ongoing Black maternal crisis. The United States remains the most dangerous place in the developed world to give birth as a black woman; working alongside organizations like Black Mamas Matter Alliance, Black Women’s Health Imperative and more, Planned Parenthood has also endorsed the Black Maternal Momnibus Act, which addresses racial disparities in pregnancy outcomes among black women.
A mother of two, McGill Johnson’s own birthing experience drove home the implicit biases that jeopardize black mothers. After the birth of her second child, a hospital-contracted infection went unaddressed until she was nearly in crisis, despite repeatedly telling her physicians that she didn’t “feel right.’
“And they didn’t take it seriously until I passed out the floor,” she recalled. “And so, the idea that—from personal experience—the way bias shows up is so unbelievably scary when it shows up in ways where black women are literally dying because they are not taken seriously. They are not seen; literally, their humanity is not being seen in the same way.”
“This public health crisis, in general, has revealed that we need to put real, meaningful measures in place to help protect health outcomes for black mothers. We are more vulnerable to structural environmental racism; we are more impacted by bias in healthcare,” she continued. “And I think this is also the place where the reproductive justice movement, which was started by black women, has really led us into important conversations around how we can support the health and rights of those folks who are most impacted....to make sure that Planned Parenthood is supporting those who are really leading the charge in the fight for reproductive healthcare.”
Compounding Planned Parenthood’s ability to deliver much-needed healthcare and resources is the ongoing threat of COVID-19. As we spoke in May, McGill Johnson was sheltering in place, balancing homeschooling with the management of a national organization under threat from Trump’s administration. Nevertheless, her central concern was how the lack of protections was affecting the most vulnerable among us.
“I think that COVID has been a disruptor for all of us…and I think particularly Planned Parenthood, as a health care provider, is a critical part of the public health care infrastructure. And when healthcare infrastructure—public and private—is challenged and stretched to the limits, as it as it is with this pandemic, you really start to see the disparities come to fore,” she shared.
“Being here in New York City, I’m looking at the folks who we’ve deemed essential workers: They’re Black, they’re Latinx, they’re largely women, they’re getting on the subway every day—crowded subways—still getting to where they need to…They are actually getting to work and doing the job in a way that we’re putting them on the line, and yet we’re still having conversations as to whether or not they can control their own bodies. And so, I feel like in some ways, we—Black people and Latinx people—are simply trying to survive the crisis, and yet our exposure is being increased,” she added, noting the rise in unemployment as an additional factor. “They’re struggling to make ends meet and so, to add the dismantling of the healthcare system on top of that, that just continues to worsen the crisis.” (Of note: On Thursday, the Labor Department reported nearly 1.5 million new state unemployment insurance claims were filed the prior week—the 14th consecutive week filings have exceeded one million.)
Nevertheless, even amid an unprecedented crisis, McGill Johnson insisted that rather than pivoting its focus, Planned Parenthood “dug deep into what our core mission is: it is to be there to serve the communities that we are located in and to really advocate on behalf of our patients who are at the center of this crisis”
“If we think about just the fundamental point that everyone deserves access to reproductive health care including abortion, our ability to control our own bodies—and particularly, as black women, our ability, because that’s a long-fought right that we’ve had to earn in so many ways,” she added. “Our ability to control our own bodies is the definition of freedom. It’s our ability to imagine our own futures and the futures of our families.”
For more information or to make a donation to Planned Parenthood, visit their website; or text 2020 to 22422 to access resources.
Correction: Friday, 6/26/20 at 4 p.m., ET: An original version of this article failed to clarify that Laura McQuade was dismissed by the PPGNY board, not PPFA. The post has been updated to reflect that detail.