WASHINGTON — As news of a restructure and layoffs spread at Planned Parenthood Federation of America earlier this year, the tension and uncertainty was palpable throughout the organization.
Less than two weeks before the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s repeal of a landmark abortion rights decision, more than 100 employees on Planned Parenthood’s national staff received notice they would lose their jobs, even after a year in which they saw donations rise in response to the decision. The reason for the cuts, leadership explained, was to funnel more “direct investment” to its 49 affiliates, the constellation of Planned Parenthood-accredited clinics that do on-the-ground work, including providing abortions. They assured them it wasn’t financial issues, but a focus shift to better serve those on the front lines in the fight for abortion access.
The layoffs hit staff that already spent much of its time regularly helping out affiliate counterparts. They also hit staff who worked on a much-touted equity program Planned Parenthood included as part of its post-restructure vision. Not only that, funding for a critical program — called the Emergency Access Funds, meant to help patients access abortion — was reduced, at a time when they needed more help than ever to get reproductive health care to people in need.
Those factors all contributed to an internal perception that PPFA had fumbled and was operating without a clear vision for the future in a post-Roe world.
“It’s hard to know what to make of it,” said Mary Ziegler, a law professor at the University of California Davis who focuses on abortion. Ziegler expressed some surprise at the news of Planned Parenthood’s restructure. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about the structure of the movement going forward. Dobbs was incredibly disruptive in that way. . . . There are more questions in the movement about what strategies should be pursued. And so when something like this happens to PPFA, it’s sort of not as clear what it’s going to mean across the movement because I think the movement is in flux.”
A Globe review of documents, including emails and screenshots, and interviews with more than a dozen staffers painted a picture of Planned Parenthood in the year since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision as an entity that appears to have made decisions at odds with its stated goals.
Planned Parenthood said the pivot was necessary to “meet this moment” after Dobbs. But the staffers, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, often described disillusionment with the organization. They included union and nonunion workers, some who had been laid off or left for other reasons, as well as some who are still working there.
“I love this organization . . . but it’s so [expletive] disappointing. It really is,” said a former national employee who was laid off. “I think there has never been a worse time to obliterate a portion of your staff than a year after Roe [falling]. . . . They could not have picked a worse moment in our movement.”
After the Dobbs decision, Planned Parenthood and its various entities were flooded with donations as supporters of abortion rights grappled with the precedent-shattering opinion. As the most recognized name among abortion providers, it was at the forefront of political and legal battles in the patchwork landscape that emerged. According to the organization’s 2021-2022 report, Planned Parenthood served 2.13 million patients, provided more than 374,000 abortions, and “managed a docket” of about 40 court cases related to abortion bans and other reproductive care-related restrictions.
But behind the scenes, Planned Parenthood’s board of directors was rethinking its approach to the new environment, leaving many employees feeling aimless and frustrated. Several sources described a work environment that had slowed down ahead of the restructure, with projects being put on hold and appearances at external events being reconsidered.
“Planned Parenthood struggles with the right level of transparency,” said another national staffer who was laid off. “It felt like they were trying to give us a lot of transparency about the process, like, ‘We’re making this pivot, these are some of the things that are changing.’ But there wasn’t a lot of transparency around, like, the vision and where things were going based on those changes.”
Specifically, some people expressed concern about the Emergency Access Funds and how its newfound uncertainty could hurt patients. According to Planned Parenthood, the program, which goes back to 2012, “supported” nearly 20,000 patients in the year after the Dobbs decision, a dramatic increase from patients in years prior. But the “potential for a pause” to EAF was communicated to leadership at Planned Parenthood affiliates in early June, according to a spokesperson at Planned Parenthood.
The spokesperson told the Globe that the need for those funds had “outpaced” fund-raising, and that the organization had to come up with a new way to distribute money, but at a lower amount. She noted that the “pause” that was communicated never occurred.
Another program that appeared to suffer from the cutbacks was the Black Health Equity Initiative, or BHEI, a program created “to improve health outcomes and reduce disparities, particularly for Black patients, starting with states in the South and Midwest.” But it lost staff in the layoffs, according to a list of the titles of positions included in the layoffs obtained by the Globe, despite promises in the restructure to invest in the program as a “long-term commitment.”
In response to questions about why staff on that team was included in the layoffs, a Planned Parenthood spokesperson said they had brought on a leader for BHEI at the national office who “will be assembling the team needed to deliver on the vision.”
Multiple people interviewed were reluctant to be critical of Planned Parenthood, afraid that it would take focus off the more important battle being waged across courtrooms and state legislatures over abortion access.
“Everyone’s afraid to damage Planned Parenthood or damage the movement, right? And it’s really difficult to like call them out for something . . . without the public being like all or nothing,” said another employee who was laid off this summer. “They’re either a beacon of championing health care or they’re hypocrites, and it’s really difficult I think to thread the needle.”
The Globe reached out to more than a dozen of Planned Parenthood’s local entities with questions on whether they had been promised more money and how they were experiencing the absence of national staff. Ellen Frank, the interim CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, touted its relationship with Planned Parenthood, but added in a statement that “we don’t anticipate that [the national changes] will impact our business model materially.”
Most of the other affiliates contacted didn’t respond; one copied in Planned Parenthood’s media team in response and deferred to the national office. But several members of the national staff said they had doubts, even as they expressed support for sending more resources to affiliates.
“I think there was probably a broader desire among staff to want to be part of thinking through what does need to change. I think that was something that felt like didn’t really happen,” said a former senior employee. “That’s unsatisfying, and it does make me wonder about the organization’s next steps.”
The Globe sent a detailed list of questions to the organization, including inquiries about how it was providing more support for affiliates and about the on-the-ground impact on affiliates. In response, spokesperson Melanie Newman said in a statement that in January 2024, it will be launching “additional” funding to affiliates through a health equity revenue distribution model meant to “put more funding into states that have been most harmed by abortion bans and laws restricting access to reproductive health.”
“The most immediate impact for affiliates is the national office’s investment in digital platforms and tools that no one affiliate can take on itself[,] and would have gone unfunded if the national office did not step in to resource them,” she added.
The Globe asked how many of the positions that worked with affiliates were eliminated, and why they were included in the layoffs. In response, Newman said “[a]ll roles at the National Office share responsibility for supporting affiliates.”
Externally, the layoffs were met with some public criticism.
“I think it’s ridiculous that organizations with budgets as big as they do can’t figure out how to keep all of their employees,” said Renee Bracey Sherman, an abortion access activist. “Laying off staff has a ripple effect within our entire movement. . . . It destroys our own organizing pipeline because staff who are dedicated to this work . . . they’re getting laid off, and then there’s nowhere for them to go.”
Even now the atmosphere internally appears to remain unsettled.
According to a Planned Parenthood spokesperson, “many” employees have received “new or updated job descriptions” since the restructure.
“It is fair to say that . . . people are still feeling uncertainty about what our work will look like going forward,” said a current staffer. “We are in a time of rebuilding. The staff that are still here are very determined to continue pushing, not just the mission of Planned Parenthood moving forward but supporting this entire movement. Right now I think we’re all evaluating the capacity we do have and how we’re able to do that.”