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The Cancerous Politics and Ideology of the Susan G. Komen Foundation

This week it became clear there are things more important to the Susan G. Komen Foundation--the fundraising giant that each year during breast cancer awareness month virtually swathes the United States in pink, a la Christo--than ensuring women are able to access exams for early detection of breast cancer.

What could be more important to an organization ostensibly dedicated to the elimination of breast cancer? Answer: The politics and personal agendas of the organization's senior staff and board, both of which have been infiltrated by right-wing ideologues and both of which were instrumental in a decision to deny further support from Komen affiliates to Planned Parenthood clinics that provide breast exams. In fact, it is now clear that some anti-choicers on Komen's board and senior staff are actually willing to sacrifice poor women to breast cancer to satisfy their own agendas.

Nationwide, Planned Parenthood doctors and nurses provide nearly 750,000 breast cancer screenings annually, offering risk assessments, breast exams, breast health information and education, and diagnostic and surgical referrals. Over the past five years, Planned Parenthood health centers have conducted nearly 170,000 clinical breast exams with funds from Komen, out of a total of more than four million clinical breast exams performed nationwide by Planned Parenthood clinics. Komen grants also supported more than 6,400 out of 70,000 mammogram referrals made by Planned Parenthood. These are affiliate-to-affiliate grants between Komen and Planned Parenthood sister organizations at the state level.

A large share of the clients served at Planned Parenthood clinics are low-income African-American and Latina women. The National Cancer Institute identifies lack of access to early and effective screening for breast cancer (and hence lack of early treatment) as a primary reason that African-American and Latina women die of breast cancer at higher rates than the general population. In fact, Komen itself recognized these links in a 2011 statement lauding its relationship with Planned Parenthood:

While Komen Affiliates provide funds to pay for screening, education and treatment programs in dozens of communities, in some areas, the only place that poor, uninsured or under-insured women can receive these services are through programs run by Planned Parenthood.

Komen further stated:

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.

But apparently those women no longer matter as Komen's support has now been withdrawn. Last month, the national office of the Komen Foundation, which maintains tight control over its state affiliates, sent a memo barring those affiliates from using money they had raised at the local level to partner with Planned Parenthood clinics in improving access to breast exams.

Why? Not science, not evidence, not concern for women.

Politics and personal ambition, pure and simple.

It's no secret that anti-choice legislators at the state and national level have made Planned Parenthood the central focus of their anti-woman agenda, spending well over half of entire legislative sessions in some states focused on cutting funding and limiting access to reproductive health services.  At the national level, the ongoing witch hunt aimed at PPFA has taken many forms, one of which includes a "Congressional inquiry" launched by House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Chairman Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.).  Stearns sent a letter to PPFA in late September 2011 asking for an avalanche of documents to "investigate" whether PPFA has used federal funds to provide abortion services.

In a letter protesting the move, Democrats Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Diana DeGette (D-CO) called the inquiry a politically-motivated waste of time and taxpayer money, stating:

“Planned Parenthood is being singled out as part of a Republican vendetta against an organization that provides family planning and other medical care to low-income women and men. … The HHS Inspector General and state Medicaid programs regularly audit Planned Parenthood … These 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.

Wasteful or not, any Congressperson can start such an inquiry, even for specious reasons. This is not equivalent to a legal "investigation" of an organization. What Stearns is doing is completely unfounded and politically motivated, but when you have power you can abuse it.

What does Stearns have to do with Komen? Anti-choice groups have long targeted Komen for its partnership with Planned Parenthood, in part by haranguing the organization and listing them as targets of various protests and boycotts, and in part by touting the medically-disproven and specious claims about non-existent links between abortion and breast cancer. A group known as Life Decisions International (LDI), the website of which is "fightpp.org," has long had Komen on its boycott list.

These efforts hardly appear to have affected Komen's bottom line since the foundation's total gross revenue in 2010 was nearly $421 million, only several hundred thousand dollars of which were granted over the past five years by Komen's state affiliates to local Planned Parenthood partners for education, screening, and referrals.  Moreover, as a large and well-known organization (albeit one criticized for its work on many levels) Komen appeared until now to stay above the ideological mud-pit of the anti-choice movement.

Last fall, however, things began to change. LDI began quiety telling other anti-choice groups that it had "won" the battle with Komen and that they should await public announcement of a policy change.

And suddenly, Cliff Stearns' inquiry became a reason for the Komen national office to change what state affiliates could do with their funds. Komen's board recently approved a new policy stating that affiliates can only provide grant funds to other organizations if:

• The applicant is not currently debarred from the receipt of federal or state funding.

• No key personnel of applicant or any of its affiliates has been convicted of fraud or a crime involving any other financial or administrative impropriety within the last year.

• The applicant or any of its affiliates is not currently under a local, state or federal formal investigation for financial or administrative impropriety or fraud. ("Affiliate" means any entities that control, are controlled by, or are under the same control as applicant or independent entities operating under the same name or brand as applicant.)

While the policy ostensibly affects "any" organization to which Komen affiliates might grant money, the memo sent to state affiliates specifically targets Planned Parenthood.

"Currently, however, various authorities at both the state and federal levels are conducting investigations involving [Planned Parenthood] and some of its local chapters, and the organization is barred from receiving government funding in numerous states. Under these new criteria, Planned Parenthood will be ineligible to receive new funding from Komen until these investigations are complete and these issues are resolved."

But these are lies and innuendo: There are no "authorities" investigating Planned Parenthood and Planned Parenthood is not barred from receiving federal government funding in any state.  No mature organization concerned about the health and well-being of women at risk of breast cancer would have created a policy targeting another respected organization with a record of saving untold lives.

But Komen can no longer claim the mantle of a respected organization. First, Komen last year hired Karen Handel, a former Georgia anti-choice gubernatorial candidate and Sarah Palin acolyte who promised as part of her platform to defund Planned Parenthood and other vital health services.  Handel, who lost her race but is said to have future political ambitions, is now Senior Vice President for Policy at Komen. She was originally endorsed in her race by and received money from current GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney, with whom some sources suggest she remains closely allied. Romney, in turn, has suddenly become more anti-choice than thou and has promised a federal person-hood amendment as well as to defund Planned Parenthood.

Second, sitting on Komen's Advocacy Alliance Board is Jane Abraham, the General Chairman of the virulently anti-choice and anti-science Susan B. Anthony List and of its Political Action Committee.  Among other involvements, Abraham helps direct the Nurturing Network, a global network of crisis pregnancy centers, organizations widely  known for spreading ideology, misinformation and lies to women facing unintended pregnancy and to use both intimidation and coercion in the course of doing so.  Also on the board of Nurturing Network is Maureen Scalia, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, no hero to women's rights and health.

That Komen--an organization ostensibly dedicated to scientific exploration of cures for breast cancer--has invited on its advocacy board women so closely allied with organizations that so blatantly ignore science and medicine and spread outright lies to other women about their health and welfare speaks volumes about Komen's ethical principles as an organization.

While anti-choicers including those on Komen's board are spreading lies, Komen's steps will ensure that more women who might have been screened will now lack access to early detection and treatment and may die from breast cancer. This is in keeping with a general and patently insane approach of the anti-choice movement: Decry abortion, for example, but limit funding for contraceptive education and supplies which can prevent the unintended pregnancies that lead to abortion. Decry the plight of minority women, but make their access to care increasingly limited. Cry for the "babies," but defund pre- and post-natal care, nutritional support, and other forms of life and health care for infants and mothers.  It is a venal and disgusting strategy that until now I would have thought well beneath the Komen Foundation no matter other issues.

But Komen as an organization now appears so little able to stand the truth that it is deleting comments from its website protesting the policy change. And this is not the first time Komen has come under fire for misinformation or questionable affiliations. Some point to concerns about Komen's influence on a recent Institute of Medicine report playing down environmental factors in breast cancer, and its close affiliation with many companies that manufacture products using cancer-causing agents.

Given these and other links, it may be no surprise that Komen's own memo to its affiliates spreads lies about Planned Parenthood, nor that Komen's actions belie its own claims to care about racial, ethnic and income disparities in access to breast cancer screenings.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control on disparities in access to care noted that women without insurance (38.2 percent) and women without a usual source of health care (36.2 percent) were least likely to be screened for cancer and that such disparities remained stark among Latina, African-American, and Native American women.

In response, Ambassador Nancy G. Brinker, founder and CEO of Komen, said: “This gap in care for uninsured and low-income women is particularly troubling and one we have been working very hard to fill at Susan G. Komen. It’s clear that we have far more work to do for women who have no resources, no insurance, and no steady source of healthcare. They need our help the most.”

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