Planned Parenthood Medical Director Ready for Political Challenges

By Madeline Faber

In her new job as director of medicine at Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region, Dr. Sarah Wallett carries the dual role of medical care provider and advocate for comprehensive reproductive health care.

Dr. Sarah Wallett, the new medical director at Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region, plans to address the next session of the Tennessee General Assembly on behalf of the organization. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“I think part of changing the conversation around all aspects of reproductive health care is having open, honest conversations about it,” Wallett said. “I hope to be able to provide accurate medical facts about this kind of care as well as compassionate, non-judgmental care for my patients.”

Wallett comes to Memphis from the University of Kentucky School of Medicine, where she was a professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology. In addition to her medical training, she has completed a fellowship in family planning at the University of Michigan and received further certification as an advocacy leader through Physicians for Reproductive Health.

Ashely Coffield, president and CEO of PPGMR, said Wallett is a natural fit for the health care provider’s changing identity and current needs.

“She has specific expertise in the care Planned Parenthood provides, and she has learned and has been through very rigorous training about how to be an advocate, which includes media training, talking to legislators and coming out in the community you’re serving in as an abortion provider,” Coffield said.

Wallett takes the reins as Planned Parenthood is focusing more on its role in the community. It recently launched the Tennessee Stories Project, an effort to reduce the stigma around abortion by sharing personal accounts from Tennessee residents.

This summer, Planned Parenthood will hold a series of events that put reproductive rights activists in conversations with their contemporary counterparts. Wallett will speak about her experience with abortion rights advocacy at the fourth and final event, to be held Aug. 23 at Amurica, 410 N. Cleveland St.

“Hiring Sarah goes hand-in-hand with us raising patients’ voices as well,” Coffield said. “We at Planned Parenthood, not just in Memphis but nationwide, are taking a different tactic. Sarah is part of that approach to bring on new medical leadership that’s not afraid to be an outspoken advocate, lift up other women’s stories and share her own experience as a medical provider.”

Wallett most recently spoke to the Kentucky General Assembly on behalf of Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky regarding a bill that would require women seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound. While women would not be required to look at the ultrasound, abortion providers would have to describe the image to women as part of an “informed consent” measure. Similar bills have been floating around the Tennessee Legislature.

“I think part of changing the conversation around all aspects of reproductive health care is having open, honest conversations about it.”

–Dr. Sarah Wallett

In recent years, PPGMR has fiercely fought against Amendment 1, a measure passed in 2014 that gives Tennessee lawmakers more power to restrict and regulate abortion. When the next Tennessee legislative session kicks off in January, Wallett will speak against laws that force mandatory waiting periods on patients seeking abortions and other restrictions to abortion access.

“This is a topic that leads to a lot of emotional responses,” Wallett said. “I’ve always tried to focus on the medical evidence and wanting to provide good care to my patients. I know that some people will disagree with me on access to abortion. But I think it’s still an important thing that I’m doing.”

In addition to being a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood, Wallett is a health care provider and a manager at the Memphis affiliate. She is charged with providing well-women care, contraception, STI testing and treatment for men and women, as well as abortion care. Under Wallett’s direction, Coffield said PPGMR will be expanding into other service areas, especially health care that is tailored to LGBT clientele.

“All the states I’ve practiced in have all been pretty conservative when it comes to reproductive rights,” Wallett said. “And I think that has prepared me well for continuing to work in a place that is politically conservative. The fact that I’ve done my training and work in those environments makes what I do even more important.”