Emily Wales takes over leadership of Planned Parenthood Great Plains — which operates clinics in Kansas, western Missouri, and other states — right as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to shrink abortion rights nationwide.
Following a nine-month-long search, Planned Parenthood Great Plains — which operates clinics in Kansas, western Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas — has named Emily Wales as its president and CEO.
Wales, a lawyer, joined the organization in 2017 and has served as its chief operations officer and general counsel. Since September, she has been its interim president and CEO.
Wales grew up in Missouri and earned her bachelor’s degree at William Jewell College in Liberty. She earned her law degree from Harvard Law School in 2013.
In an interview with KCUR on Monday, Wales spoke about the challenges facing Planned Parenthood Great Plains at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court appears ready to overrule Roe v. Wade — or, at a minimum, to significantly roll back abortion rights nationwide.
What follows is a lightly edited version of that conversation.
You are taking over the reins at a very challenging moment for Planned Parenthood, perhaps even the most challenging time in its history. Where do you see Planned Parenthood Great Plains going from here?
We’ve been in these four states for decades, so there’s no chance that we will not continue providing care. But there’s a very sad reality that at least in three of our states, patients who are seeking abortion services will have to be treated differently.
We’ve been able to provide local abortion care in Arkansas and Oklahoma and, until a few years ago, off and on in Missouri. Kansas will continue to have access and we hope it will continue long after August [Editors note: August is when Kansas voters will vote on whether the Kansas Constitution provides a right to abortion], but we are doing all we can now to prepare internally to help patients feel supported and also to prepare them to leave this part of the country to get abortion care.
Along with the announcement of your appointment, Planned Parenthood Great Plains said it was establishing something called the Center for Abortion and Reproductive Equity, or CARE. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
We’ve learned a lot in the past nine months since the crisis in Texas began. [Editors note: The U.S. Supreme Court last year refused to block a Texas law banning abortion after six weeks, even though the law is unconstitutional under Roe v. Wade.]
I mean, we have health centers in Oklahoma that have been seeing the most Texans seeking abortion care outside of Texas across the Planned Parenthood Federation. And yet Oklahoma now has a total ban in place and we have had to pivot those centers.
And we’re now telling not only people coming across state lines that they can’t get abortion care locally, but we’re now having to tell our families and friends who are from Oklahoma that care is not available.
Even in this moment when things are incredibly dark and access is not equal across the country, we are determined to ensure that patients continue receiving care that they deserve. And so for us, that means really enhancing what we call patient navigation services — the part of the work that didn’t exist even a year ago for us, which is helping patients figure out restrictions, coordinate hotels, gas cards, food cards, to make sure that they can get care even when it’s far from home.
So we’re launching the Center for Abortion and Reproductive Equity to increase those wraparound supports so that as many people as are seeking care can get some level of support from us here at home. For some people, that will not mean abortion care close to where they live, but it will mean a safe spot to get information, education and then an amount of support to get across state lines, to get care.
Isn’t that what you’ve been doing all along?
To some extent, yes. But it looks a little different. We’ve had to really work with our staff to understand diverse patients who are coming to us from different parts of the country. Our patient base looks a little different, but also patient needs look different.
For a long time, many of our patients have been able to navigate state restrictions and delays, mandates on how long they have to wait, but then still access care. What we’re seeing is, when you take those state restrictions and add to them 10 or 12 hours in the car, more and more patients are ending calls, seeking appointments without a plan to come in. They’ve told us it’s too complex, ‘I can’t figure out how to get my kids in the car,’ I can’t be off of work for two shifts. So I’m just not going to get the care that I’m seeking.’
We’re trying to eliminate those barriers and they’ve been huge in the last nine months. So we are trying to think through new ways to support patients and meet them where they are, even if that doesn’t mean providing their services directly.
You previously served as chief operations officer and general counsel of Planned Parenthood Great Plains. The organization has been embroiled in a lot of litigation in recent years as both Kansas and Missouri instituted measures to restrict abortion and to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood.
How how do you think your role as general counsel has prepared you for your current role?
Every question I’m getting right now has a legal sense. And even from patients, we’re hearing more than ever questions about whether Roe is still the law of the land, why rights exist in some states but don’t seem to in other states, and we’re trying to prepare our team to provide some basic civic information so people understand what’s happening.
But it’s not the world that most of our frontline health services staff do. It’s been hugely helpful to me, working with Planned Parenthood and our team members, to have a legal understanding of what’s happening, even though much of what we’re seeing doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I’ve tried to justify as a lawyer what’s been happening in Texas and now in Oklahoma, where we can’t block laws that are clearly unconstitutional.
And every single day, we’re seeing patients who are trying to seek care, and their rights are being violated. So it’s been a frustrating moment to be a lawyer doing this work, but at the same time, it’s helpful to have a background in compliance and in communication with our team members in moments of crisis.
The really sad thing about preparing for a post-Roe environment is that it’s not new to the team at Great Plains. We have had to run this fire drill before. We’ve had to stop services, we’ve had interruption in care, we’ve had late nights waiting for decisions or injunctions. The difference is that now there is no long-term hope from the federal courts.
And so instead, we are turning to local plans. What’s happening in Kansas is a great example. We have to rely on state protections in order to continue services. So I think the background is useful, although I’m sad that it is as critical as it is to have a legal background to work for Planned Parenthood. That is the moment we’re in.
You’ve kind of touched on this, but let me put it starkly. We’re expecting a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court any day now on Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban.
However it rules, whether it overturns Roe outright or doesn’t overrule it but upholds the Mississippi ban, where does that leave your organization? Given that three of the states you operate in — Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas — all stand poised to institute whatever restrictions the Supreme Court says it’s OK to enact.
It’s an odd thing to say, but I wish there was more that would change the day the decision comes down. I wish we still had services for patients in our part of the state of Missouri and across Oklahoma, but we don’t. And so when the Supreme Court issues a decision that could mean the end of Roe vs. Wade, we will only have one state that has to immediately pivot the care that it’s offering, and that’s Arkansas.
But in Missouri and in Oklahoma, we cannot overcome state restrictions. We can’t get an injunction on a total ban in order to allow us to provide services. So for our team members there, it will mean more people who are distraught and seeking care and need information about getting out of their home states.
But care is already not a reality for many of the patients in our four states. It’s a heartbreaking moment to know that Roe could be overturned, but in some ways it is empowering to say this is the reality we’re living in, this is already true today.
So when the Supreme Court deals what could be a final blow to Roe, it will be devastating, but it will also allow us to say very publicly, this has been happening. And now we have to act at the local level to fight back and make sure people get the care they deserve.