Susan G. Komen and the politics of women’s health care

Despite the adversarial political climate that divides so many Americans, there are some topics that most people can agree on regardless of politics. One of those is that early detection and screening for cervical cancer and breast cancer are important initiatives that should be supported because early detection leads to earlier treatment which, in turn, saves lives. While many women have such exams paid for by their health care insurance, those without insurance often rely on funding from non-profit organizations to fund these types of early clinical, screening, and diagnostic exams.

Problems emerge, however, when one of these health care organizations takes a position on a topic as controversial as abortion, either pro or con. For example, Planned Parenthood is a non-profit organization that relies heavily on donors to fund women’s healthcare services, which includes clinical breast exams and mammograms. However, the organization also conducts about 300,000 abortions a year and lobbies for pro-abortion legislation. In doing so, Planned Parenthood intertwines funding for activities that almost everyone would support (breast exams) with funding for an activity (abortions) that deeply divides Americans.

When this happens, such an organization can expect to be the target of people who have strong opposing views on abortion. This is exactly what has happened to Planned Parenthood, as they have been frequently audited and targeted for defunding by Congressional Republicans. Most recently, the largest breast cancer organization in the U.S. (Susan G. Komen for the Cure) decided to cut its funding to Planned Parenthood. Although the money donated from Susan G. Komen was for clinical breast exams and mammograms, Republicans criticized the group for supporting a group that supported abortions. Susan G. Komen claimed that the reason for their decision was because they developed a new rule prohibiting donations to organizations that are under congressional investigation. However, critics claim that this is a contrived excuse, especially since it only affected funding of Planned Parenthood.

Delving into the politics of this issue in more detail gives reason to suspect that this was a contrived excuse by Susan G. Komen when the real issue involved giving into political and financial pressures. Specifically, the founder of Susan G. Komen is Nancy Brinker, who has long-standing connections to the Republican party, served as an Ambassador for George W. Bush, donating money to the Republican party (including George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign), and partnered with the policy-making branch of the George W. Bush presidential library. In fact, the decision to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood was made soon after the latter partnership was established.

To make the situation even more politically interesting, the leader of Planned Parenthood is Cecile Richards, who was the daughter of former Texas Democratic governor, Anne Richards. Richards is widely remembered for ridiculing George W. Bush when he ran against her for governor. Thus, it is not much a stretch to imagine that a condition for partnership with Susan. G. Komen (which is worth 3 million dollars and is funded by Merck, a known campaign donor to current Texas governor, Rick Perry) could have been dependent on defunding Planned Parenthood. Susan G. Komen has denied that their decision has anything to do with politics, which is hard to believe, and this brings me to my last point.

If Susan G. Komen truly wanted to defund Planned Parenthood because they did not want to support a group that also funded abortions, that is well within their right to do. Planned Parenthood has to understand that when they fund both non-controversial healthcare services and controversial services, that the non-controversial services will suffer funding cuts from organizations who are pressured to stop contributing to them. Separating these services into different groups would at least prevent this problem from occurring, regardless of one’s position on abortion. In cases where funding is cut off, it is misleading to paint the organization that cuts the funding as creating barriers to women’s health because the problem would not exist if Planned Parenthood did not simultaneously fund controversial and non-controversial health services. They are within their right to do so, but it will cause problems as a result.

At the same time, it is not a mystery that Planned Parenthood pays for abortions. Thus, if another organization is truly opposed to abortions, they should simply not make a contribution in the first place. Once an organization makes a contribution and then stops contributing after known pressure and associations with opponents of Planned Parenthood, the decision is going to appear politically and financially motivated even if by some chance it was not.

Interestingly, due to political pressure (particularly on social media), Susan G. Komen announced a restoration of funds on 2/3/12. Komen had successfully been cast as an organization not committed to saving women’s lives and did what they had to do to reverse what had become a public relations nightmare. This is an excellent case study on how politics on both sides of the aisle affects women’s health care.

Dominic A. Carone is a neuropsychologist who blogs at

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  • Stan Moody

    Separating such services also serves the purpose of further stigmatizing abortions as something other than healthcare for women. It’s controversial because extremists have spend billions making it so for decades. Women have right to healthcare independent of the religious views of their company’s president or the voters of their state. If you’re against abortion, don’t get one.

    • Anonymous

      Exactly. No one forces you to have an abortion, while you want to deny abortions to people who do not share your religious beliefs. Whatever happened to separation of church and state?

      • Anonymous

        Good post! Republicans act like women can’t think for themselves and can’t make their own personal decisions about their body. Besides, didn’t most people fleeing Europe in the past do so because they wanted religious freedom? Now, it looks like the religious right is trying to impose the same kind of persecution today. 

        • Anonymous

          Great point on the flight to the US for religious freedom.

  • Meryl Steinberg

    Some salient point provided by Breast Cancer Awareness exec director, Karuna Jagger: “We need to reevaluate the status quo of how breast cancer is addressed in this country because maintaining the status quo is not going to reverse those numbers. We need to ask and address the hardest questions:Why, in the richest country on earth, do we have to fight tooth and nail to get women the basic healthcare they need?
    Why are there such huge race and class inequities in breast cancer incidence and outcomes?
    Why are breast cancer treatments still horribly toxic, impossibly expensive, and ultimately fail too many women?The sad truth is that Komen’s willingness to restore funding to Planned Parenthood will not prevent women from developing the disease nor will it end the epidemic. Komen continues to deny the links between DES and breast cancer and BPA and breast cancer. Komen overemphasizes the value of mammography—mammography will never stop cancer before it starts. And by allowing companies to put pink ribbons on their carcinogenic products, Komen supports pinkwashers. Meanwhile, metastatic disease, which is what kills women, receives only 2% of research dollars in this country.This is a powerful and important moment to look closely at how we, as a country, address the breast cancer epidemic. We must insist that as long as women continue to die from this disease, women’s health must always comes first.Today we have an opportunity to say: the status quo of breast cancer doesn’t put women’s health first. What will change the course of the epidemic is the fierce, unapologetic, clear-eyed activism we saw this week from women’s health advocates around the country, demanding that we must put women’s health first. Now is the time to demand more from your breast cancer organizations. Change will happen because you take action. And your actions will always speak louder than pink.”

    • Anonymous

      And where are the breast specialists – not surgeons, oncologists, gynecologists, PCPs, radiologists, who would be working with women who have non-cancerous breast disease?  it’s quite one disgusting mess of things if there is a diagnosis of breast cancer, and another when it turns out that it is not breast cancer.  Hell on the one side; purgatory on the other.

  • John Ballard

    One subtext of this flap is the role of Karen Handel whose extreme position promulgates the nutty idea that abortions lead to breast cancer. 

  • Joe Gaeta

    I finished writing this as I learned that Komen reversed their decision…….but my points are still valid.
    My position on abortion is complicated.  Too long to fully explain here.  Once staunchly pro-life, my opinion has moderated over the years.  My pro-choice friends call me pro-life.  My pro-life friends call me pro-choice.  There is shrill on both sides.  But, this Komen thing has really broken the shrill-o-meter.  Perspective, people.
    Komen has an annual budget of $100 million. 
    Planned Parenthood’s annual budget is $1 BILLION. Billion with a “B”.
    Komen gives about $600,000 to Planned Parenthood per year.
    $600,000 yearly to Planned Parenthood.  This is 0.06% of PP’s annual budget.  Point. Oh. Six.  (And just 0.6% of Komen’s.)  [ If my math is wrong, please tell me. ]
    Again, perspective, people. 
    And, Komen’s $600,000 line item for breast health is not evaporating.  It is not going away.  It ismerely being shifted from Planned Parenthood to “higher impact programs”, including programs that are “actually providing the life saving mammograms”.  (According to Komen’s CEO)  See that word “actually”?  That is key.  At least from everything I have read, Planned Parenthood does not “actually” provide mammograms.  (I will happily stand corrected is proof can be provided of Planned Parenthood actually providing mammograms.  Their own web site suggests otherwise.)  From what understand, they only give basic breast cancer screenings (the same exam that experts urge women perform on themselves).  They are not a major provider of mammograms. All PP does is refer women to third parties for the mammogram.  One would assume that these third party providers are the ones that will directly benefit from Komen’s redirection of their funds. 
    And, even if I was happily corrected and it can be shown that PP does provide mammograms, it still would not change the fact that Komen is not eliminating funding for this service, but merely shifting where the grants are given.  (And it also doesn’t change the fact that we’re talking about 0.06% loss off their budget.  Businesses and charities deal much bigger dips all the time for a variety of reasons.  Deal with it.)
    So, I am honestly not sure how Komen’s decision adversely affect’s women’s breast health.  At worstit’s a wash.  At best, it will be a net-positive- as those funds will be going to organizations that actually do the life-saving work.  Not to mention the increased donations to both Komen and PP that will come from this.  (And is coming from this – see below.)  This mantra that hundreds of thousands of women a year will be dropping dead from breast cancer because PP doesn’t have the funds isABSURD.  Truly.
    The severing of ties b/w Komen and PP will also be a boon financially to both organizations.  I understand that it’s hard for people on one side of an argument to conceive that there are sincere people who believe differently from themselves….but the reality is that nearly 1/2 of this country is pro-life.  (Including nearly 1/2 of women.)  They should be able to follow their conscience and give to an organization that they like (Komen) that is not involved with an organization that that have sincerely-held issues with (PP).  Pro-lifers are just as positively fired up about this Komen/PP thing as pro-choicers are negatively.  Both groups are stepping up appropriately.  Indeed, reports are that donations to Komen have increased by 100% since this brew-ha-ha started.  Ditto Planned Parenthood….PP has raised the equivalent of Komen’s grant money just since this craziness began – including a $250K matching plegde from Michael Bloomberg.  Good for them.  They can raise their own money….and do…and will raise even more now.  Buffett, Gates, Turner…all huge donors to PP.
    I, personally, am not a “boycotter”.  Life and business is way too complicated. I used to know people who didn’t buy GE lighbulbs b/c GE makes stuff for the military…jet engines, etc.  War profiteers.  Whatever.   Fine.  But they also make CT Scanners and other life-saving medical equipment….and employ thousands of people who spend money to support their families…and donate to charity…and keep the economy going….But, whatever floats your boat.  I also know pro-choicers and other people that may not be comfortable with Evangelical Christianity who refuse to eat a Chik-fil-A b/c of Truett Cathy’s religious beliefs and the organizations he supports (which include pro-life groups and anti-gay marriage groups).  That’s fine, too.  I mean, they’re missing out on the best Chicken sandwich on the planet, but that’s their business.  It’s also the business of those companies.  If it ever got to the point where GE’s bottom line was being affected enough that their involvement with the military was a net-negative to their business due to so many people morally opposed to what hey were doing, they would change their practices.  That’s not going to happen any time soon.  But, if you sleep better at night because you didn’t buy a GE lightbulb or eat a chicken sandwich, or buy BP gas, more power to you.
    My point is that Komen, as a charity dedicated to reducing breast cancer mortality specifically – and women’s breast health more broadly, came to a decision.  They had two issues to deal with: 
    A) how best to distribute their funds in order to achieve their goals and
    B) what their affiliation with PP was costing them b/c sincere people who had an issue with their affiliation were not giving $.  (Opportunity cost.) 
    A sincere pro-lifer who had deeply-held, honest beliefs (even if you may disagree with them) should be able to walk or run proudly in a Komen event without a portion of their money and efforts (no matter how small) going to an organization they are vehemently opposed to.  Now, again, I think one should weigh all the pros and cons before boycotting something….and, I rarely (if ever) boycott.  Personally, I would not withhold money from Komen b/c of their PP affiliation (even though I do have issues with PP.)  Again, weight the facts, pros, cons, etc.  I’ve know about Komen’s grants to PP for years.  But, all the facts should be out there for people to consider.  Until pro-life groups made an issue of the PP connection, I’m sure 90% of the country had no clue.    I bet a majority of the country STILL has no clue.
    In terms of the “keep politics out of healthcare” refrain – it seems to me that it was Komen who put healthcare in to politics in the first place by mingling a universally accepted good (Breast Cancer Awareness and Research) with an organization that has -a the VERY least- a large plurality of the population as detractors.  (i.e., controversial**).  But, as I said before, this brew-ha-ha will be a net benefit to Planned Parenthood, Komen, and women’s breast health. 
    But, my god, people.  Settle dow!  Zero. Point.  Oh.  Six. Percent.  A number ALREADY made up for.
    It is a non-issue.  Move along.
    **An aside…..Just because you and everyone you hang out with agree with something, doesn’t mean it’s not controversial.  I am aware enough to understand that I hold a lot of controversial opinions.  But, there seems to be a lot of people who cannot wrap their brains around the fact that there are a large plurality (sometimes a majority) of sincere, well-meaning, and – yes – intelligent people that may disagree them on matters of great importance.  Supporting the work that Planned Parenthood does is, in fact, controversial.  It doesn’t matter that you don’t think it is or don’t think it should be.  I am a lung cancer advocate. I believe in the greater use of CT scans for early detection.  Many, many people do not.  It is controversial.  I hold a controversial view.  Say it.  Abortion is controversial.  Being pro-life is controversial.  Being pro-choice is controversial.  Say it.  It’s OK.  It’s liberating.  
    Again…I  Komen reversed their decision…. so, whatever……they seem easily swayed by pressure….from both sides…..stay classy.

    • ninguem

      It really is a tiny amount of money compared to their budget (BOTH of them) and compared to the controversy it generated.

      Silly me, I thought people, and organizations, could choose to not contribute for any reason, no reason, or a stupid reason.

      To me, it looks more like a shakedown.

  • SchoolBoardLady

    Joe, because KOMEN reversed its decision, your points are amplified. I think it’s also interesting that no one brought up the ABC connection.  PP seeks the mantle of respectability that KOMEN commands, therefore, KOMEN’s contributions to PP are even more valuable than the relatively low dollar amount.
    PP wants abortion to be accepted not just legal–and that’s what I personally abhor. 

  • Anonymous

    If Planned Parenthood is so pro-women, then why did they BULLY and publicly MALIGN the other pro-women organization, Susan B. Komen, after it made its decision to streamline its grant process? Nobody thinks that Planned Parenthood’s behavior was obnoxious and reprehensible?  Politics or no politics, someone should call out PP for their bullying tactics, because that is what they do. Once a donor, always a donor?  Like the date you cannot leave?  Please…

    • ninguem

       Nice charity you have there. Shame if anything were to happen to it.

      So, when can we expect your donation to my charity?

    • Anonymous

      The bully was the Susan B. Komen Foundation,
      not Planned Parenthood. I really wonder how all of the money donated to the
      Komen Foundation gets allotted, how much for overhead, how much for all those pink ribbons, how much for administration??? 

      • Anonymous

        In my opinion, the Komen Foundation’s reputation has been damaged. It appears to me that somebody in their organization chose to adopt an political agenda. In my opinion, non-profits should always remain neutral regarding politics. They need to get back to basics after they fire those people. Until then, they get nothing from me! Not one dime!

      • MatzM
  • Anonymous

    Any woman who allows her personal health care decisions to be decided by anyone else but herself is an imbecile! The exact same way a man makes personal health decisions, a woman should be completely and totally in charge of her body! 

  • Anonymous

    And she and her minions are the reason for the dust up.

  • Expat Doctor Mom

    Thanks for highlighting the politics.  Very interesting if not almost incestuous.  A lot of conflict of interest going on.

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