Yesterday, the news broke that Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a major funder of breast cancer prevention in the United States, will be withdrawing their support to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings. Komen has been making grants to Planned Parenthood since 2005, usually around half a million dollars per year. The stated reason for withdrawing the support is a new internal Komen policy to refuse funding to any organization under state for federal investigation. Planned Parenthood is the subject of a Congressional probe, initiated by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., seeking to determine whether federally granted money was improperly spent on abortions.
And the internet exploded.
The presumption is that Komen bowed to pressure from the anti-choice forces that have been hounding them for years and cut off funding to Planned Parenthood on political grounds. News reports that revealed the political, anti-choice background of Karen Handel, Komen’s Senior VP for advocacy, speculate that her background as a Georgia gubernatorial candidate who campaigned on a platform that included de-funding Planned Parenthood may have had a role in Komen’s decision.
These factors may have played a role. We will probably never know for sure. I do know that this situation is incredibly complicated.
I spent over six years working in the cancer advocacy community and had the opportunity to work with the staff at Komen, among other major cancer non-profits. I can say without hesitation that I have enormous respect for everyone I had contact with at Komen. That organization and its staff, like all the cancer groups I worked with, is a worthwhile organization pursuing important work including cancer research, cancer prevention, and programs to help people undergoing treatment. They are truly noble of purpose. And so far, nothing has happened to change my opinion of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
What I know for sure is that all cancer groups face heat from the anti-choice factions. All of them. Whether there are questions about funding stem cell research, the (unproven) link between abortion and breast cancer, or funding to women’s health providers who may also provide abortion services, all cancer non-profits take heat on these issues and all of them have to walk a delicate line in dealing with them. Because the heat is not from external forces: the heat is from the people who non-profits like Komen rely on for volunteering and fundraising. There are millions of people who participate in Komen’s Race for the Cure every year and many of them have anti-choice views to some degree or another. Komen needs those people in order to operate so their views on Komen’s operating procedures matters to them. No non-profit can ignore the voices of their grassroots constituents or their major donors. They must respond to and address their concerns in a way that best benefits the mission of the organization.
I do not know what sort of constituent pressure Komen was hearing about their grants to Planned Parenthood. I don’t know how many volunteers or donors threatened to sever ties to the organization over this issue. I do not know if the Congressional probe was being used as a leverage device by an organized faction of donors to convince Komen to change their policy. I don’t know if other recipients of Komen grants have been under investigation for misuse of funds and led to review of funding policies. I just don’t know.
While it’s easy to assume that it was the anti-choice VP who drove the internal policy change with the single-minded intent of cutting off Planned Parenthood, we can’t say for sure that it’s the truth. In fact, on it’s face, the policy to withhold funds from any group under investigation is a smart choice for a non-profit. The timing of this policy, the personnel involved, and the hot button nature of Planned Panrenthood makes the whole situation suspicious. But we really don’t know.
What I hope will happen is that this is a temporary situation. I hope that Komen will distribute the funds that would otherwise have gone to Planned Parenthood to other breast cancer screening providers. And I hope that when the Congressional probe against Planned Parenthood ends, they will be permitted to reapply for grants and they will receive them on merit. If that happens, Komen will be absolved.
Meanwhile, Komen is under a cloud of suspicion of anti-choice loyalty, which is a shame. They are a good organization and, until yesterday, enjoyed deserved support from the feminist community for their commitment to women’s health. I don’t believe that essential commitment has changed. They made an internal decision that may or may not be valid but it does not take away from their mission. If indeed it was abortion-related political considerations that led to this decision, then I will question their commitment to mission. Political myopia has no place in the fight against cancer.
Will I be making a contribution to Komen this year? Probably not but they’ve never been high on my list of charities to support. I prefer direct service providers and Komen is not one; they regrant funds to providers. I was always more likely to contribute to Planned Parenthood than to Komen and I’ll be doing so. I will be keeping my eye on Komen in the near future to try to ascertain if they’re letting politics cloud mission. If they really are, well, then they lose my respect.