Planned Parenthood's president on the big changes ahead for reproductive rights and her organization's many other asks of the Biden administration

  • Planned Parenthood wants the Biden administration to go “bold” on abortion rights.
  • The organization is already talking to the Biden team and advising on gender issues and racial equity. 
  • Planned Parenthood President Alexis McGill Johnson gave Insider the details in an exclusive interview.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Planned Parenthood is going on offense after four years locked out of some of Washington’s biggest power corridors.

With Joe Biden replacing Donald Trump in the White House and Democrats controlling Congress, the reproductive health organization has big hopes that the federal government will go much further than ever before to support and extend abortion rights, the group’s president, Alexis McGill Johnson, told Insider in an exclusive interview. 

“We should be pushing bold agenda items in the name of building back better,” McGill Johnson said, using the slogan from Biden’s presidential campaign. 

She said the organization wants the federal government to end restrictions on medication abortions that prevent people from being able to access the pills through the mail or at the pharmacy. McGill Johnson stressed to Insider that making medication abortion available during the coronavirus pandemic should be one of the top priorities for the Biden administration. 

On the day of her interview last week with Insider, Biden signed an executive order that will eventually restore millions of dollars in federal funding to Planned Parenthood and other clinics that provide and discuss abortions. The order starts with having the Department of Health and Human Services review and consider throwing out the Trump administration’s rules on a family planning program called Title X. 

The $286 million program was established during the Nixon administration and helps pay for birth control, testing for sexually transmitted infections, and cancer screenings for 4 million low-income people.

But under the Trump administration, organizations weren’t allowed to get Title X grants if their abortion services were in the same building as other family-planning care. They also weren’t allowed to accept the funding if they referred patients to abortions. That part of the rule led critics to call it the “domestic gag rule.”  

McGill Johnson said Planned Parenthood wants Congress to increase funding for Title X and said the Biden administration should do more than roll back the Trump-era rules and work toward “modernizing” the program, “making sure that it’s inclusive of everyone, of all races and genders,” she said. 

“What we’re excited about potentially seeing in the executive action today is that opportunity to build back, to modernize, to really think about all of the ways in which we can take a 50-year-old program and rethink it and reimagine it for the future,” said McGill Johnson, who has been Planned Parenthood’s president since June 2020. 

Read more: Planned Parenthood wants the Biden administration to allow telemedicine abortions now and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic

Alexis McGill Johnson has been president of Planned Parenthood since June 2020.Angela Weiss/Getty Images

Meeting with Biden’s team  

Any changes to Title X will take months or even more than a year to complete because they have to go through rulemaking to withstand potential legal challenges. Adding to the difficulty is that the Senate confirmation hearing for Biden’s pick for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Xavier Beccera, hasn’t been scheduled yet. 

Once the rules change, Planned Parenthood will need to re-apply for the Title X funding. In 2019, Planned Parenthood opted out of the program rather than comply with the Trump-era rules. That meant forgoing about $60 million a year. 

McGill Johnson described the decision as “heart wrenching” and said it caused “incredible harm” for patients in some states, particularly in rural areas. 

“The only way you get to that decision is when you are being forced to essentially provide substandard healthcare and medical provision,” she said. “We’re first and foremost a healthcare provider. And when you have an administration come in and ask you to actually provide substandard care, you end up having to weigh the moral imperative to be able to provide the best care with potential limits and access.”

McGill Johnson hasn’t talked to Biden or Vice President Kamala Harris since the election but she said she has met via video conference with members of the transition and now the administration. 

Planned Parenthood helped the Biden administration with its Gender Policy Council and its orders on racial equity. It’s advising on executive orders, policies, and on vocally supporting nominees and appointments. 

“We are engaging in the policy side, on the education side, on messaging, and personnel — all of the ways that we think can be good policy making but also support the use of the bully pulpit that the White House carries.” 

McGill Johnson plans to meet with Becerra once he’s sworn in. The HHS nominee had a forceful record on abortion rights during his time in the House and most recently as California attorney general, where he challenged many of Trump’s actions. 

One state law Becerra defended required anti-abortion clinics to post signs in their facilities telling patients how they could obtain abortions paid for by the state. The Supreme Court struck down the law in 2018 on the grounds that it violated free speech. 

Read more: Biden gets busy reversing Trump-era restrictions on gender and reproductive rights. His policies are even more progressive than past Democratic presidents.

‘Over the moon’ 

Biden, a devout Catholic, is an unexpected messenger to carry the abortion rights cause. The president had a mixed record on abortion over his more than 35-year history in the Senate and initially stumbled during the 2020 primary race on whether he supported the Democratic platform to allow federal funding to pay for abortion care.

But as his party continues its leftward shift, Biden is expected to go further on reproductive rights than his Democratic predecessors, and Planned Parenthood’s president said she believes he and Harris will deliver given the election pledges they made to enshrine abortion rights. 

“We have no indications that they would walk back from any of that,” McGill Johnson said. “They are strong supporters and we believe that they will continue to be so.” 

McGill Johnson said she was heartened by Harris’ commitment to issues such as maternal health and mortality. 

“She has really demonstrated her facility of understanding our issues but also the intersection of sexual and reproductive healthcare with issues of race, with issues of the economy, with issues of democracy and our American values,” she said. “I’m completely over the moon and so excited to support her leadership and support their vision for how we transform healthcare, as well as sexual reproductive healthcare.” 

McGill Johnson, who is Black, watched the inauguration of Biden and Harris — the first vice president who is female, Black, and of Southeast Asian descent — with her daughters from her home in New York. 

“Symbolism does mean something,” she said. “Representation does mean a lot because it creates possibility. It creates imagination, which is why I was very intentional about watching it with my daughters.” 

From left to right: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerBrendan Smialowski/Pool via AP

Mum on filibuster and expanding the courts 

Other policies where Planned Parenthood hopes to make inroads will be difficult to achieve without nixing the filibuster or expanding the number of judges on the Supreme Court. Both are issues that gained an inordinate amount of attention during the 2020 presidential campaign but neither appears to have much traction on Capitol Hill in the current political environment. 

Despite this, McGill Johnson said the organization continues to remain neutral on both topics. Biden has opposed nixing the filibuster but is assembling a commission to consider reforming the Supreme Court. 

One agenda item that won’t be possible without gutting the filibuster will be to do away with the Hyde Amendment, a longstanding rider on spending bills that prevents federal dollars from paying for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or when a pregnancy is life-threatening. The change would face long odds in the Senate with a 50-50 breakdown. 

The Democratic platform and Biden support gutting the amendment that’s named after its original sponsor, the late-Illinois GOP Rep. Henry Hyde. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has never had her caucus vote on the issue, signaling that it remains controversial among centrist members of her party. 

Planned Parenthood also wants to see the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision codified into law before the Supreme Court with its new 6-3 conservative majority has a chance to rule on the issue. The current makeup of the nation’s highest court means it is possible Roe could get struck down and that abortion would become illegal in some states.  

Biden supports legalizing abortion through Congress to enshrine the right to abortion without having to lean on the courts as a backstop, but the issue is still controversial. Most people in the US support keeping abortion legal but also want limits, according to polling from NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist.

The federal judicial branch will still have major influence on abortion rights. McGill Johnson pointed out that Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate he enjoyed throughout his four years in office were able to add 200 conservative-minded federal judges with lifetime appointments. 

“Most of them have hostile records to reproductive rights, there’s just no way around that,” McGill Johnson said. “It’s going to take years to repair that damage — generations really — and achieve real transformational change.” 

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