Just Another Business Decision for Komen

In the midst of the many attacks against Planned Parenthood and abortion rights over the past year, the news that Komen for the Cure was halting future funding of breast cancer screening and breast health education to Planned Parenthood affiliates has still managed to create shock waves in women’s health advocacy circles. Many feel hurt and torn: How could one women’s health organization turn its back on another?

Although we all know abortion is a politically polarizing issue, Planned Parenthood has generally been well-accepted by those of us who advocate for women’s health because of the array of sexual health and cancer screening services that it provides to women, particularly low-income and uninsured women. Abortion services account for only about 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s patient care each year–although you wouldn’t know that by reading some of the attacks against Planned Parenthood from anti-abortion organizations. In their call for Komen to withdraw their support, they’ve referred to Planned Parenthood as “the nation’s largest abortion mill”. These anti-abortion groups celebrated Komen’s decision.

After many years as a breast-cancer activist, when I heard the news, I was not surprised. It felt like one more in a series of disappointments from the largest and most financially successful breast cancer organization. Komen has long seemed more concerned with their corporate branding than with supporting other breast cancer organizations. And despite the science-driven move by smaller breast cancer organizations to further investigate the causes of breast cancer and warn women against the potential harms of chemicals like BPA, Komen continued to downplay the risks.

Although I wasn’t surprised, I still wondered why Komen made this particular decision. Komen states that they have a new policy that forbids them from providing funds to organizations that are under Congressional investigation. The policy comes just in time to apply to Planned Parenthood, the target of an investigation by Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) into the use of federal funds by the organization–which both Democrats and pro-choice organizations have dismissed as an ideologically-driven witch hunt. While Komen didn’t attribute their decision to political pressure from anti-abortion groups, the organization has been under attack by such groups since launching the Planned Parenthood partnership in 2005. Even more interesting, and not discussed in the AP coverage of the decision, Komen recently hired Karen Handel as their Senior Vice President, who in her unsuccessful 2010 run for governor of Georgia was adamant about her anti-abortion position and opposition to Planned Parenthood.

None of those potential explanations make me feel any better about the decision. The truth is that in discontinuing their funding relationship with Planned Parenthood, Komen is taking a financially small (for their budget) but symbolically significant step away from supporting women’s health.

When I express disillusionment with Komen, others often respond, “At least they are doing something.” But each time Komen takes a step back from supporting women’s health in what seems to be another business decision, I find it harder and harder to support them in any way. While many may think that breast cancer is an apolitical women’s health issue–one that is pretty in pink and easy for all political parties to support–it isn’t. Breast cancer is tied to broader politically controversial issues like universal insurance coverage for preventive health care for women, including mammograms and pap smears. The much higher breast cancer death rates for black and low-income women demand that all breast cancer advocates support affordable and accessible screening for women, so that early detection is possible for everyone. Finally, the growing concern about environmental links to breast cancer suggests that we have to be able to demand government regulation of potentially hazardous chemicals.

Advocates need to work together and support each other, particularly during hard economic and political times. Komen once again has demonstrated that they are not advocates for women’s health, they are advocates for Komen. The good news is that we can switch to  supporting other breast cancer organizations that prioritize women’s health and work in coalitions. I continue to follow Komen for the Cure’s work, and I hope that at some point I will see them make decisions for the right reasons.

 

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Support Planned Parenthood and double your dollars’ impact: The Ms. Foundation has announced that for all donations they receive up to $20,000, they will send a matching amount to Planned Parenthood’s Breast Cancer Screening funds. You can give here.

Photo from Flickr user cliff1066™ under Creative Commons 2.0

Comments

  1. Thank you for that Lori Baralt. It’s the clearest thing I’ve read about this issue yet.

  2. Christine says:

    Thanks for this informative post!

  3. I agree with the other folks that commented. I was happy to see: (from the article) “Finally, the growing concern about environmental links to breast cancer suggests that we have to be able to demand government regulation of potentially hazardous chemicals.” That would be prevention!

  4. Thank you Lori! I enjoyed reading your passionate and accurate analysis of Komen’s upsetting, disappointing, and misguided decision. I will be supporting other breast cancer organizations that prioritize women’s comprehensive health.

  5. While I appreciate that you and many other advocates for women’s healthcare have our best interests at heart, I feel you are misinformed about the benefits of women’s cancer screening. Following the current debate on the risks and perceived benefits of breast screening, the Guardian recently published an article about a new book by the Nordic Cochrane Collaboration director Peter Gøtzsche, who has spent over a decade investigating breast screening, his analysis suggests that screening may save one life for every 2,000 women who go for a mammogram, however it harms 10 others. Gøtzsche is not the only medical researcher that warns us of the harm mass screening causes women, Assoc Prof Robin Bell claims that improved treatments is what has lowered the death rate not screening and Professor Michael Baum, a chief British oncologist who specialises in breast cancer alleges that women are missing informed consent when it comes to breast cancer screening, as women are not given the correct information on the risks and benefits.

    Over screening increases the risk of unnecessary and often harmful treatment of benign conditions, this is also applicable to rare cancers such as cervical cancer, unfortunately pap smears cause more harm from over treatment than saving lives, according to Angela Raffle it takes 1,000 women to be screened for 35 years to prevent 1 death from cervical cancer. There is a double standard concerning women’s and men’s health; women are ‘told’ they ‘must’ screen men are generally given the risks and benefits to screening and respected if they decline and left alone when it comes to rare cancers (brain, oral, testicular).

    This unhealthy focus placed on ‘women’s health’ is more about paternalistic control over women’s bodies than good medicine. As a feminist it concerns me that the medical surveillance on women’s bodies continues to reinforce the belief that women are potentially ill, frail and in need of extra care. I have made an informed choice not to screen and would encourage other women to do their own research to make informed decisions about their healthcare.

    http://www.cochrane.org/in-the-news/guardian-uk-reports-new-book-breast-cancer-screening-cochrane-author-peter-g%C3%B8tzsche

    Breast cancer Screening: Some Inconvenient Truths
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JxDnRMU-l7w

    http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2011/s3355875.htm

    http://blogs.wsj.com/health/2011/01/20/health-blog-qa-h-gilbert-welch-author-of-overdiagnosed/

    Raffle, AE, Muir Gray, JA 2007, Screening: evidence and practice, Oxford University Press, New York.

  6. Hi guys, great to see another good feminist website! Just wanted to comment about this article though to say that women are not being told the whole truth about breast cancer. Check out what the Nordic Cochrane Centre/Institute has to say about the whole deal. It makes for some very interesting reading. The scientists from the NCI have done lots and lots of study on breast cancer, and the “business” of breast screening. They have brought out a book that everyday people can read and understand, called “Mammography Screening: Truth, lies and Controversy”. Of course the breast screening associations and doctors are up in arms about it, but it is about time that women the world over are told the whole truth about things like breast cancer. The whole gyn industry is another area that women who can think for themselves need to be looking at too. If you are interested, check out the NCI, and also check out some articles by Dr. Angela Raffle regarding cervical cancer and the whole industry surrounding that. It makes for some very disturbing reading. Feminists and all women need to start demanding some truth, some informed consent, and some respect from the cancer screening associations, the governments, and the medical industry. Feminism got us the care that we need, but now we need to start taking back our rights to informed consent, equality, and bodily dignity. Thanks for your time.

  7. Rockerbabe says:

    I doesn’t surprise me that Komen withdrew from PP; not with the likes of Karen Handal on their board of directors. She never met a women’s issue she couldn’t find fault with, despite trying to appeal to women to support her for governor here in Georgia.

    As result of Komen’s decision, I have decided that I will no longer financially support Komen; in fact, I plan to given my Komen money to PP, just for the principle.
    I hope others will decide to donate their hard-earned dollars to a more worthy cause.

    Women need to stick together or we will once again be back in the second class mode.

  8. Hi, I just wanted to clarify something. I understand and agree with the very real problems of over-screening and over-testing for disease. However, Planned Parenthood does not provide mammograms–its physicians and nurse practitioners provide touch screenings for abnormal lumps. They also teach women how to do their own self-examinations at home.

  9. I should add to my above comment that Planned Parenthood might refer a women to another doctor to get a mammogram if they think it might be beneficial.

  10. Sandie Reed says:

    Thank you for discussing this issue of the commodification of breast cancer, and that the Susan G. Komen Foundation does it better than most companies or non-profits. This is a big problem in trying to raise money for a cause. People think they are contributing financially to the cause by buying gum or yogurt because it has a pink bow on it. You don’t know what portion of that money goes towards research or financially assist women with healthcare to stop breast cancer; and what amount goes to the foundation for salaries, paying the rent, etc. I believe that the answer is for people to donate directly to the organization, and cut out the middle company. So please donate, but directly to an organization like Planned Parenthood, where they use the money for women who need financial assistance to pay for a needed mammogram.

  11. Very well said – thanks!

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