Wen was speaking at the TIME 100 Health Summit on Thursday when she addressed the backlash. The physician, who was ousted as head of the reproductive health care organization in July over “philosophical differences,” said she is “deeply disturbed” by how health care, including access to abortion, has become such a sensitive and heated debate.
“I’m deeply disturbed by how health care has become so politicized,” she told Arianna Huffington, author and former CEO of HuffPost. “So much so that we cannot even discuss our points of agreement and the nuanced views that many people can have without being attacked.”
Wen made her initial controversial comments during Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate when Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) said abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” The phrase is a Clinton-era expression that abortion rights activists have since abandoned because some say it further stigmatizes the medical procedure as something that should be as infrequent as possible.
“I don’t agree with @TulsiGabbard on a lot,” Wen tweeted during the debate, “but [I] do appreciate that she brought up the third rail for Democrats: that abortion should be ‘safe, legal, and rare.’ We should reduce the need for abortions by investing in prevention.”
The criticism came swiftly as many people tweeted that she was feeding anti-abortion rhetoric by assuming people don’t want to get abortions.
“This framing is harmful, stigmatizing, and feeds the anti-choice narrative that abortion is inherently bad. It’s not,” one Twitter user responded to Wen. “And for someone who used to lead a reproductive health organization, you should know the consequences of that kind of rhetoric.”
It’s largely believed that Wen was fired from Planned Parenthood in part because she did not prioritize abortion rights enough while helming the organization. In the wake of ongoing attacks against abortion access in the United States, Wen wanted to advocate for a broad range of public health policies instead of simply focusing on abortion care.
During Thursday’s TIME summit, Wen said there are “nuances and complexities” to everyone’s perspective on abortion, but that all abortion rights activists can agree that “health care has to be a human right guaranteed for all and not just a privilege available only to some.”
“I think a lot of us believe that abortion, for example, is a complex, moral issue, and we may not want to have an abortion ourselves but would never get in the way of somebody else making this deeply personal, medical decision for themselves,” she added. “Or maybe we’re even uncomfortable about abortion but would not want women to die because they don’t have access to safe, legal abortion either.”
To move the conversation forward, Wen concluded, she hopes “we can begin with these points of agreement.”