Why is everyone surprised?

There’s quite a kerfuffle going on in the blogosphere about the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to defund their grants to Planned Parenthood. Apparently most of the grants, totaling hundreds of thousands, would have gone for breast exams.

Komen’s defense is that Planned Parenthood is the subject of a Congressional investigation, and that they can’t support an organization under suspicion of anything.

The anti-Komen line seems to be something like this: It’s terrible that a foundation that fights for women should pull back its support from Planned Parenthood, another organization that fights for women. Comprehensive women’s healthcare should not be treated as if it were a crime. The decision is political. Komen is just hand-in-glove with big business. You can’t trust ’em. Pink is annoying. Especially on every item in the grocery aisle.

The pro-Komen people say: Great. I’m anti-abortion and I’m anti-breast cancer. Now I can support Komen. Hooray!

Throughout the debate, folks seem to conflate the right to an abortion with the right to a breast exam. People go off on tangents, complaining that the percentage of Komen’s budget spent on research has gone down in recent years.

Obviously, this is a lot to unpack. Without going into the merits and the politics of the Congressional investigation into Planned Parenthood, or Komen’s administrative costs, I’m sad that Komen would withdraw support from an organization like Planned Parenthood, which already has the network and the infrastructure to provide healthcare to women on a national scale. Komen doesn’t really have the facilities to provide breast exams nationally.

But I’m not surprised. Nancy Brinker founded Susan G. Komen for the Cure to honor the memory of her sister, who died of breast cancer in 1980. Brinker started out in retail marketing, in Dallas, probably one of the most corporate, right-leaning, anti-abortion towns in the country. Just look at her picture.

Nancy Brinker

She’s corporate through and through, not the sort to be burning patchouli incense at a pro-choice rally. Why is it a surprise that her organization might have that same culture? The word is, she and her organization had been under pressure to withdraw support from Planned Parenthood. She, or someone, probably did a cost-benefit analysis and decided that cutting ties with Planned Parenthood might bring in more support from women who lean to the anti-abortion part of the political spectrum. Sure, that’s political. Sure, that’s calculating. Sure, I wouldn’t have made that decision. But I don’t think that makes the Komen foundation evil.

You can’t take away what Brinker has done for women’s health. Through sheer force of will, she brought breast cancer out into the sunlight, made it something you could talk about in polite company. She’s raised jillions for breast cancer research and advocacy. She’s created this whole phenomenon of “Walk for Disease X,” which raises yet more money, not just for breast cancer, but for Lymphoma and Parkinson’s and lung cancer, and you name it. These walks also give patients and families a way to feel empowered when they’re up against something that makes us all feel powerless: mortality. Brinker probably couldn’t have done any of this without her corporate attitude and her corporate connections. She’s not scary to corporate philanthropists. Why is everyone so surprised that she might not want to be partners with Planned Parenthood?

Whatever you may think of her, or of pink ribbons, you can’t say that Brinker and the organization she built have been a bad force for women’s health. Komen for the Cure is really about breast cancer, not women’s health in its totality. It would be great if they could team up with Planned Parenthood, but I don’t see how anything moral or ethical requires them to do so.

I’m pro-choice. I even WENT to Planned Parenthood as a teenager. I think that Planned Parenthood is a force for good, but it’s a different kind of good from Komen’s.

Women’s health has become very political. Let’s step back from screaming at each other and appreciate what a victory that is for women. Two generations ago, women’s health wasn’t even a public issue. We can thank Planned Parenthood, and Susan G. Komen for the Cure, for bringing our health concerns into the limelight. And we can hope that both organizations continue to fight for women’s health, each in its own way.


About leftbreast

I have had breast cancer. I was diagnosed at 47, and am now 49. I have finished "active treatment," two surgeries, chemo, radiation, monoclonal antibodies. These days, I only take a drug to suppress my uptake of estrogen, since my tumor was highly reactive to that hormone. I have been married to my husband Pete for 21 years. I have a stepdaughter, Maureen, 30, and a daughter, Erin, 10. I've been a freelance magazine journalist for 20-plus years, covering everything from Chinese foreign policy to Catholic nuns to endangered species. I have had a great life. I have lived in Asia and all over the United States. I have spent nights with tree-sitters in Oregon and with astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. I've been to a cocktail party on the poopdeck of a British destroyer docked in Shanghai. I've taken the bus to Tibet, and tramped through the cloud forests of Panama with biologists. A magazine sent me on a raft trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon; another sent me to cooking school for a week. I have spent time with celebrities, presidents and heroin dealers. I love my work. I have a loving, supportive family and more friends than I probably deserve. I have had the space and time to camp, ski, cycle, garden, cook and spoil my pets (an Australian shepherd, a German shepherd and a tabby cat). If it all ended tomorrow, I would have to say that it has been a really, really good ride. When I was in thick of treatment, I was simply fighting for more time. Now, I'm trying to connect the experience of cancer with the rest of my life, with the time that's been won. I hope the cancer never comes back, but if it does, I'll be ready. That's what this blog is about.
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