Komen Debacle Based on Misrepresentations
Political spin blurs facts about what Planned Parenthood does
In the last two weeks, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation has generated more controversy than would be expected of a group with the remarkably unobjectionable goal of fighting breast cancer. Of course, the group has found itself in the news and on Op-Ed pages not because of its mission but because of its announcement last week that it would be cutting ties with Planned Parenthood. After a wave of criticism, the group decided on Friday to reverse that change in policy, and Tuesday’s resignation of Komen’s Vice President for Public Policy Karen Handel extended the politically charged storyline.
At this point, the Komen Foundation’s initial assurances that its reasons for breaking with Planned Parenthood were apolitical have become all but irrelevant. The investigation into PPFA led by Representative Cliff Stearns (R–Fl.) that precluded the group from receiving Komen grants following the now-reversed rule change is clearly political, as was the fervent outpouring of public criticism following the decision.
Concerned citizens, including New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg (in the form of a $250,000 check) and several of my most active Facebook friends (with a few particularly biting status updates) made the sound argument that Komen’s break with Planned Parenthood unfairly took resources from low-income women, putting their health at risk for political reasons. On a practical level—which, let’s not forget, is the one that actually matters—they are absolutely right.
But this controversy should also be troubling as a matter of principle. Activists, supporters and reasonable people have repeated time and again that Planned Parenthood provides valuable health services for low-income women and does so without misusing public money. It is legal in this country for a woman to end a pregnancy, so Planned Parenthood uses 3% of its funds—none of which come from taxpayers–to provide that service. No evidence has appeared to contradict those facts, despite the fact that Congressman Stearns’s continued suspicion of misconduct led him to begin an investigation.
The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation’s move to stop giving grants for cancer screenings to Planned Parenthood clinics demonstrated that continued unproven accusations can eventually assume the weight of reality. This latest incident contributes to the growing impression that there is no such thing as objective fact in American public life, only rhetoric. It is the same infuriating phenomenon that forces us to “debate” whether or not climate change exists.
In place of facts, this scenario hinges on beliefs–specifically, on the anti-abortion beliefs of a portion of the public and certain political elites. On one hand, breaking with Planned Parenthood was aimed at bolstering Komen’s standing with pro-life supporters and organizations. Komen, like many organizations, relies on the public for funding. In membership-based political advocacy organizations there is something basically democratic and therefore valuable about that structure. However, the Komen Foundation funds cancer research. It is not a political advocacy group. We seem to have reached a point where the liberal-conservative debate over social issues is so emotionally charged that it bleeds into the work of groups that have nothing to do with politics.
The original decision to suspend funding, as Handel has stressed, was the responsibility of Komen’s entire leadership board, not just one vice president. However it is impossible to ignore the link between recent events and Handel’s attempt to have a one-issue career, regardless of the position she holds at a given point in time. There is nothing wrong with members of Komen’s board holding pro-life views. I appreciate that a strong moral commitment to the pro-life effort would lead to consciously pro-life actions in a variety of areas. However, to the extent that Handel or other members of the board acted on the basis of their opinions on abortion, they did a serious disservice to the Komen Foundation. It was irresponsible and grossly political to withhold Komen dollars as part of the nationwide political attack on Planned Parenthood. This episode polemically casts Planned Parenthood as a symbol of a woman’s right to choose rather than a women’s health resource—and as an organization that should have always been an unquestioned ally of the Susan G. Komen Foundation.