Komen’s race to the right

February 8, 2012

Elizabeth Fawthrop, a socialist and member of Seattle Clinic Defense, explains how Komen for the Cure's anti-abortion policies sparked a furious protest.

WHEN THE Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation announced its plans to no longer approve grants to Planned Parenthood last week, the outpouring of anger was immediate.

In less than a week, the breast cancer fundraising organization was forced to apologize, and one of its top officials announced she was stepping down.

On February 1, Komen for the Cure, which bills itself as "the global leader in the breast cancer movement," said it would cut off funding for Planned Parenthood to screen poor and working women for breast cancer.

The change in policy was supposedly aimed at organizations that were under "investigation." Planned Parenthood is currently the subject of a congressional inquiry, led by right-wing, anti-choice zealots, into whether it is diverting government funds to cover abortions. The Hyde Amendment, first passed in 1976 and renewed annually since, explicitly bars government funding for abortion.

Over the past five years, Planned Parenthood, using funds donated by Komen, has provided over 170,000 clinical breast exams and 6,400 mammograms at clinics across the nation.

Komen for the Cure CEO Nancy Brinker
Komen for the Cure CEO Nancy Brinker

Planned Parenthood is one of the few providers that offers screening services at little to no cost in rural and remote areas, and it is often the sole provider of reproductive health services to women without insurance. Komen itself lauded the access that Planned Parenthood provides in a 2011 statement about the relationship between the two organizations:

These facilities serve rural women, poor women, Native American women, women of color, and the un- and under-insured. As part of our financial arrangements, we monitor our grantees twice a year to be sure they are spending the money in line with our agreements, and we are assured that Planned Parenthood uses these funds only for breast health education, screening and treatment programs.

As long as there is a need for health care for these women, Komen Affiliates will continue to fund the facilities that meet that need.

THE RESPONSE to Komen's announcement that it would, in fact, stop funding those very facilities was swift and clear. Calls to drop out of Komen races, held to fundraise for the organization, and redirect donations to Planned Parenthood came from everywhere.

Supporters called into radio talk shows, wrote to their local newspaper, tweeted about their experiences with Planned Parenthood and posted cut-up pink ribbons on Facebook. In the three days following the announcement, Planned Parenthood raised more than $3 million. In a country where more than 500 pieces of anti-women legislation were introduced last year in the 50 states, Komen clearly crossed a line with huge numbers of people.

By February 3, Komen had announced an "amendment" to its policy--organizations would only be cut off from funding once an investigation had concluded and criminal charges had been filed. In a statement announcing the change, Komen apologized "for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women's lives."

But it's difficult to read the original policy proposal and its amendment later in the week without coming to the conclusion that Komen was--and is--more than willing to put politics in front of women's lives.

For example, Mother Jones reported that Komen awarded Penn State University a five-year, $7.5 million research grant. If the foundation's policy were applied uniformly, Penn State, currently under federal investigation for the role of top officials in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, ought to be cut off, too.

In fact, Komen didn't announce it was cutting off any number of organizations it has connections with that are under some form of investigation--the University of Kansas, University of Texas at Austin, Duke University Medical Center, Dana-Faber Cancer Institute in Boston, among others. All are under investigation by state or federal agencies.

Last year, Komen hired Republican Karen Handel as senior vice president for policy. Handel ran a failed gubernatorial campaign in Georgia, during which she promised to defund Planned Parenthood as part of her platform. On her campaign website, Handel describes herself as "supporting the noble work of crisis pregnancy centers" and her belief that "every abortion is a tragedy."

Handel, like other leaders in the anti-choice movement, steadfastly denies actual science in favor of promoting a far-right political agenda that hurts women. It was naive at best for Komen to hire Handel to handle policy, and not expect her to use the organization to make a political stand. On February 6, Handel announced her resignation under continued political pressure.

BUT HANDEL isn't the only problem at Komen. The group has long embraced a corporate organizational model in the name of promoting women's health.

Despite raising a staggering $1.9 billion since its founding in 1982, and with assets currently topping $390 million, only 20 percent of Komen's income went to actual research in the 2009-10 fiscal year. That same fiscal year, Komen spent twice as much on what it called "public health education"--largely to promote breast cancer awareness through the ubiquitous pink ribbon.

While spreading the message about early detection is a worthy goal, the pink ribbons that Komen plasters on everything from high-end kitchen appliances to NFL helmets to buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken are also highly effective forms of advertising. Komen brings in $55 million a year from its licensing contracts, but little of that money actually goes to research.

"It's rarely more than a penny on the dollar," said Trent Stamp, executive director of Charity Navigator, a charity watchdog group. "It's just great advertising."

Take a closer look at who runs Komen, and the reasons for all this become clearer. Komen founder and CEO Nancy Brinker was a major donor to George W. Bush. Brinker and her ex-husband were recognized as "Bush Pioneers," having raised $100,000 toward his presidential campaign, in addition to the $125,000 raised for Republican candidates in the same election cycle.

As thanks for her support, Bush appointed Brinker as ambassador to Hungary in 2001. Brinker's ties to the Bush family stretch back to 1986, when then-Vice President George H.W. Bush appointed her to the National Cancer Advisory Board. In 1993, Brinker joined the board of Caremark Rx, one of the five companies involved in a Medicare prescription discount card program promoted by Bush Jr. in 2001--a dodge to avoid trying to stop rapid increases in prescription costs.

The backlash against the Komen announcement was another glimpse at the potential muscle that could be mobilized behind a renewed fight for women's rights. Rebecca Traister and Joan Walsh of Salon.com captured the outpouring of anger at Komen's decision to stop contributing to Planned Parenthood:

The starkly observable attack against something as crucial and basic as breast exams for poor women, as well as the fact that so many divergent voices were pulled into it, meant that the conversation was not about partisan politics; it was about women.

For the first time in what feels like forever, passion and fury were being loudly, proudly given in a full-throated voice, on behalf of women--women as moral actors; women as citizens with rights, health, bodies, freedoms; women as people with families and economic concerns.

These are the grounds in which a new movement can grow roots. We must demand comprehensive, shame-free health care for everyone. And when we stand with Planned Parenthood, we must defend all of its services. Abortion is not a necessary evil, one to be apologized for by asserting that it is only one service among many that Planned Parenthood provides. We must demand abortion access for all because it is a crucial part of women's health.

Comprehensive health care for all must be part of the debate moving forward. Health care and reproductive rights activists are bringing this message to the streets. In Seattle, activists organized an all-day teach-in around issues of economic justice, reproductive rights and LGBT equality. In Washington D.C., Occupiers "mic checked" the anti-choice March for Life rally.

The spontaneous and successful campaign to force Komen to change course should give all those who support equality the confidence to fight for more.

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