Dissatisfaction With Komen Foundation Goes Beyond Planned Parenthood Break

Like a number of people I have spoken to, Kate McNeely of New York City gave money to Planned Parenthood and sent a pissed-off email to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation over the latter's announcement that it would sever funding to the former.

“I personally received much of my health care throughout my life from Planned Parenthood,” McNeely told me in an email. “There were probably 5-7 years where they were the only doctors I ever saw.” McNeely's case illustrates Planned Parenthood's value to women with otherwise limited access to health care. “In the state of New York, those who qualify for Medicaid qualify for a pretty great coverage at Planned Parenthood. Because I was in school and working, I really only had time for a few doctor appointments.”

McNeely, who has given to Planned Parenthood before, donated to help the organization compensate for the money the Komen Foundation was pulling. “I also wrote an e-mail to the Executive Director of the Board.” The email accused the leadership of Komen of having proven to be “an organization that cared more about a certain bit of political donors and political beliefs than the health of women.”

Komen's withdrawal of support for Planned Parenthood estranged McNeely and others from the breast cancer advocacy organization. While Philip Klein of the right-wing Washington Examiner attributed this estrangement to “fire from liberal groups, Democratic Senators and the media,” it is hardly the only factor. The controversy, in fact, served to highlight objections to Komen's conduct that were already in place. Chief among these is the accusation that the foundation's reduction of women's health to an apolitical charity matter degrades the efforts of feminist activists. Amy Schiller at The Nation wrote that the controversy “provided a long-overdue spotlight on the difference between feminism as a brand and feminism as a political movement.”

Genya Shimkin, a masters of public health candidate in community-oriented public health practice at the University of Washington, calls this the “commodification of breasts and breast cancer.” A longtime critic of the Komen Foundation, Shimkin was heartened by the backlash Komen suffered after its announcement. “Though I was surprised and upset by their decision earlier this week, I was thrilled to see the positive response on behalf of Planned Parenthood, and one of my co-workers noted that, if nothing else, this controversy meant that now everyone knows that Planned Parenthood does breast cancer screenings.”

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Breast cancer, according to Shimkin, receives “a disproportionate amount of attention when compared to mortality. Then there's ovarian cancer, which is kind of like breast cancer's ugly little sister. It is the deadliest of the gynecologic cancers, has few (and very subtle) symptoms, no test, no routine screening and no cute ‘save the ovaries' campaign. The higher-ups at Komen must know that ovarian cancer and breast cancer are related. They are both found on the BRCA genes, and share many of the same risk factors. But Komen doesn't talk about ovarian cancer.”

This is not the only instance in which Shimkin calls Komen's record as an advocate for women's health into question. “Komen has taken a strong stance in support of yearly mammograms despite the possible harms of the procedure (including high rates of false positives, radiation, and unnecessary surgeries). Further, Komen has partnered with cosmetics companies that use all kinds of potentially harmful chemicals, and gun makers, all in the name of 'saving women's lives.'”

It is difficult to reconcile Komen's involvement with right-wing causes with its hope to engender support among feminists. Not only have the CEO of Komen and her former husband given large donations to the Republican Party; not only did Karen Handel, the senior vice president for public policy write, “I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood,” but the organization even secretly “drilled prospective candidates” for the position of “Senior Vice President for Communications and External Relations” regarding “how they would handle the controversy about Komen's relationship with Planned Parenthood.”

Even after the foundation released a statement apologizing for “recent decisions,” which Glenn Greenwald tweeted was “an amazing, Internet-driven victory,” many remained skeptical of the organization's intentions. A post at Feministing expressed concern “about the ambiguous language about continuing to fund Planned Parenthood. For how long? Till this current grant cycle ends? And then will we hear that unfortunately Planned Parenthood failed to meet the newer criteria? This statement is a positive step, but it reads a lot like an attempt to create political cover. I don't believe this issue is over – we still need to pay attention to Komen, and still need to hold them publicly accountable for their funding decisions.”

Greg Sargent of The Washington Post asked Komen board member John Raffaelli to respond to these concerns. Raffaelli “insisted it would be unfair to expect the group to commit to future grants.” “It would be highly unfair to ask us to commit to any organization that doesn't go through a grant process that shows that the money we raise is used to carry out our mission,” Raffaelli told Sargent. “We're a humanitarian organization. We have a mission. Tell me you can help carry out our mission and we will sit down at the table.” Activists will monitor future relations between the Komen Foundation and Planned Parenthood, especially as the former moves into a new year of its grant process.

The deficiencies of Komen's that attracted Shimkin's jaundiced eye are of a piece with the foundation's right-wing political affiliations, or what Shimkin called its “anti-woman agenda” – absent a pro-woman philosophy, the thinking goes, help for women will be incidental, rather than central, to the foundation's activities. Wrote Schiller, “When women focus on a hyperfeminine aesthetic at the expense of issues of substance, we end up with a hot pink ghetto of goodwill that forfeits the conversation about rights, access and money to the menfolk.”

Boston-based blogger Katy Kelleher is hopeful, but guarded, going forward: “I hope [Komen's leaders] view this as a wake up call and remember what they're really trying to accomplish and how detrimental this kind of political bullshit can be to women's health.”