The fallout over the decision by Susan G. Komen for the Cure to stop giving grants to Planned Parenthood affiliates reflects a growing anger across the country over the intrusion of political ideology in matters concerning women’s health.
It’s fair to say the well-funded foundation had not thought through, or vastly underestimated, the criticism it would receive for making a thinly veiled political decision to cut off funding for breast-screening exams for low-income women. And based on the level of disapproval it’s facing, it may be sometime before Komen can recover.
In the meantime, its decision may well be remembered for activating people who, up until now, may not have given much thought to the right-wing influence on women’s health care.
It’s surprisingly easy for people to separate politics from their own lives. While they might believe certain political decisions are not very smart, they are unlikely to speak up if it does not affect them. But the breast cancer community, comprised of women recently diagnosed, survivors, family members and advocates of more research funding, has long been portrayed as one big family — largely by Komen, which sponsors the very popular and very pink fundraising walks.
For Komen to cut out some of that family — because of pressure from anti-abortion activists who refuse to acknowledge Planned Parenthood’s delivery of vital health care services — simply strikes too close to home.
Deana Rohlinger, an associate professor at Florida State University who studies women’s groups, said on NPR’s “All Things Considered” this week, “It’s not a secret by any stretch of the imagination that Planned Parenthood does abortion. That’s not brand new information. But for some people, that Komen is getting politically involved is.”
The truth is that Komen has been politically involved for some time. OBOS Executive Director Judy Norsigian, in an interview on “Morning Edition,” noted that Komen’s founder and CEO Nancy Brinker has been a longtime Republican supporter and fundraiser, “and on many occasions has supported policies that most supporters of Komen probably wouldn’t approve of.” Some of those policies are outlined in this posting at Daily Kos.
But it took pulling money for breast cancer screening from one of the most popular organizations serving women of all backgrounds to blow open Komen’s politics.
According to news reports, Komen’s president, Elizabeth Thompson, told Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a phone call in December that it would not be renewing its grants. The funding totaled around $680,000 in 2011 and $580,000 in 2010 for breast-cancer screening and other breast-health services offered at 19 Planned Parenthood affiliates.
The reason given was that the charity had adopted new rules barring grants to organizations under investigation by local, state or federal authorities, and Planned Parenthood was under House investigation. It is, of course, very easy to open an investigation without merit. In this case, Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida launched an inquiry last fall to determine whether Planned Parenthood spent public money on abortions, which is prohibited by federal law. The inquiry was seen as a far-reaching political ploy to discredit the organization, after Republicans failed to cut off Planned Parenthood funding.
Reps. Henry Waxman and Diana DeGette, both Democrats, sent a letter to Stearns questioning the basis for the investigation, noting in part that federal audits “have not identified any pattern of misuse of federal funds, illegal activity, or other abuse that would justify a broad and invasive congressional investigation.”
It struck some as no coincidence that Komen had recently hired a new senior vice-president for public policy, Karen Handel. During her failed run for governor of Georgia in 2010, Handel described herself as “staunchly and unequivocally pro-life” and pledged to eliminate grant funding for breast and cervical cancer screening at Planned Parenthood.
The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reports that the no-investigations rule was, according to “three sources with direct knowledge of the Komen decision-making process,” created specifically as an excuse to dump Planned Parenthood, and that decision was driven by Handel. A former employee talked on the record about the resignation of Mollie Williams, Komen’s top public health official, who left the organization in protest:
John Hammarley, who until recently served as Komen’s senior communications adviser and who was charged with managing the public relations aspects of Komen’s Planned Parenthood grant, said that Williams believed she could not honorably serve in her position once Komen had caved to pressure from the anti-abortion right. “Mollie is one of the most highly respected and ethical people inside the organization, and she felt she couldn’t continue under these conditions,” Hammarley said. “The Komen board of directors are very politically savvy folks, and I think over time they thought if they gave in to the very aggressive propaganda machine of the anti-abortion groups, that the issue would go away. It seemed very short-sighted to me.”
Lessons on Media Strategy
From a PR perspective, it’s been a disaster for Komen. Previously, the foundation has had to deal with a small number of anti-abortion activists who dismiss all of Planned Parenthood’s vital healthcare services (pdf) out of hand because a small percentage of its work is abortion-related (3 percent of services in 2010 — cancer screening and prevention accounted for 14.5 percent) and who don’t understand how grants work. Some of them erronesously believe abortion raises a woman’s risk of breast cancer, though numerous studies and the National Cancer Institute have affirmed it does not.
Now Komen must confront the wrath of its own supporters, many of whom have raised thousands of dollars for Komen over the years and won’t stand for political shenanigans. Based on interviews and comments left on Komen’s discussion forum and elsewhere online, many of those women who have developed strong ties with the breast cancer community are looking to send their money elsewhere.
Kivi Leroux Miller, a nonprofit communications strategist, told Politico that Komen “pretty much cut their fundraising support in half.”
“I don’t think they meant to make a huge political statement, but it was extremely naïve of them to think this wasn’t hyper-political,” Miller continued. “They have dove head first into the abortion debate — in fact, they fell into the pool — and whoever is doing their communications doesn’t know how to swim.”
Miller has more media analysis on her site in a post titled “The Accidental Rebranding of Komen for the Cure.” Social media consultant Beth Kanter has written a good summary of online responses, “Komen Kan Kiss My Mammagram, PinActivism, and Newsjacking for a Cause.” Kanter also set up a Pininterest board, “Komen Kan Kiss My Mammogram,” named after Allison Fine’s fundraising campaign for Planned Parenthood. Kanter invited other women to contribute, and the result is fabulous collage of pro-Planned Parenthood posters, videos and news.
In another brilliant stroke of online activism, media technologist Deanna Zandt yesterday launched a Tumblr site for people to submit stories about how Planned Parenthood literally saved or changed their lives by providing birth control and affordable preventive health care. Here’s one of the many stories you’ll see:
I had gone back to school in my late 20s and was temporarily uninsured. I went to Planned Parenthood in Manhattan for my yearly checkup and contraceptives. They detected abnormal cervical cells that were precancerous, and soon afterward they performed cryosurgery to remove the cells. The fee was something this temporarily poor college student could afford. I remained loyal to PP for my annual checkup. Several years later, they found a breast lump and guided me to further screening (by then, I was insured again). I was fortunate that it turned out to be nothing, but my knowledge that PP would be there for me no matter what put my mind at ease during that week between tests.
Planned Parenthood has benefited greatly, in funding as well as good will. It received nearly $400,000 in donations in the first 24 hours after the Komen news broke. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Thursday he would personally give Planned Parenthood a $250,000 matching gift, donating $1 for ever new dollar Planned Parenthood raises up to $250,000. For more donation and activism opportunities, Katha Pollitt has a nice round-up at the end of her wonderfully titled column, “The Komen Foundation Pinkwashes Anti-choicers, Punks Planned Parenthood.”
Critiques Against Komen Go Beyond Political Bias
Komen seemed to completely misjudge the extent of the fallout, refusing to make spokespeople available Tuesday and failing to respond quickly on Facebook or Twitter. Brinker, Komen’s founder, finally appeared in a video posted to YouTube late Wednesday, terming the criticisms a “dangerous distraction.” She said the decision resulted from a review of grants and standards and pledged that the changes in grantmaking would enable Komen to ultimately help more women. Brinker also said Komen would “never turn our backs on women who need us the most.”
That remains debatable. While the public outcry stems from learning that Komen currently is not acting in the best interest of women’s health, its critics have long questioned whether the enormous amount of money Komen raises is put to good use. For instance, Komen only recently decided to start looking at the environmental causes of breast cancer — something groups like Breast Cancer Action and Silent Spring Institute have long advocated for.
In recent years, there’s been growing criticism of Komen’s ties to companies that don pink ribbons each year while developing products that contain carcinogens and increase cancer risks. (Remember the mocked “Buckets for the Cure” hookup with Kentucky Fried Chicken?) This practice, known as pinkwashing, sparked BCA’s Think Before Your Pink campaign. As Barbara Brenner, former BCA director, told NPR in 2010: “If shopping could cure breast cancer, it would be cured by now.”
In addition, Komen’s screening guidelines are at odds with recommendations put forth in 2009 by the U.S. Preventive Services Taskforce — guidelines that OBOS explained in detail back then and fully supports. Komen’s promotion of certain drugs used to treat breast cancer has also come under scrutiny.
“In the past, they’ve let women down by insisting that the FDA should continue to approve Avastin as an effective treatment for breast cancer when new evidence sadly showed, that it’s not,” Cindy Pearson, executive director of the National Women’s Health Network, said on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” “They’ve also insisted that screening for breast cancer start at a young age and be very frequent when evidence shows it’s not that much of a slam dunk anymore.”
Writing in The Atlantic, Linda Hirshman raises another question:
In a ghastly coincidence, the same day Komen pulled the money from Planned Parenthood because Stearns thought they were spending federal funds on abortions, the Journal of the America Medical Association published a damning study that almost half of women receiving second surgeries after lumpectomies didn’t need the procedure. Painful, disfiguring, unnecessary surgery. At least three of the four sites studied in the JAMA report — the University of Vermont, Kaiser Permanente Colorado, and the Marshfield Clinic — has a relationship with the Komen Foundation. Kaiser Permanente is a “corporate campaign partner,” the University of Vermont received a research grant, the Central Wisconsin Komen affiliate sponsors programs at the Marshfield Clinic. Maybe Komen should concentrate their granting criteria on whether the recipients are actually helping cancer patients.
But for now, the spotlight is on Komen’s politics.
The AP’s David Crary spoke with Patrick Hurd, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia, a recipient of a 2010 grant from Komen. His wife, Betsi, has participated in several Komen for the Cure fundraising races and is currently battling breast cancer.
“We’re kind of reeling,” Hurd said. “It sounds almost trite, going through this with Betsi, but cancer doesn’t care if you’re pro-choice, anti-choice, progressive, conservative,” Hurd said. “Victims of cancer could care less about people’s politics.”
Unless those holding the purse strings play politics with cancer.