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.