Since its founding in 1982, the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure has developed a massive network of breast cancer survivors and advocates, made its Race for the Cure ubiquitous, and has grown enough to call itself “the largest source of nonprofit funds dedicated to the fight against breast cancer in the world.” Over the years, the group has committed at least $1.2 billion to breast cancer research, advocacy, and services. At the same time, Planned Parenthood, has become one of the largest providers of breast cancer screenings in the nation, particularly for low-income women and women without insurance. In the past five years, more than four million breast exams were performed in Planned Parenthood clinics, along with more than 70,000 mammogram referrals. With a common cause of keeping women healthy, the two iconic organizations partnered together to make breast cancer screenings and education programs affordable.
But that association came to an abrupt end Tuesday, when it was reported that the Komen foundation would cut off funds to 19 Planned Parenthood affiliates. Until now, Planned Parenthood had received nearly $700,000 every year from Komen since 2005. Komen began notifying Planned Parenthood affiliates in December that they would no longer be eligible for grants beyond existing support. A Planned Parenthood press release states that Komen’s leadership did not respond to requests for a meeting to discuss the decision.
A Komen spokeswoman told the Associated Press that the organization cannot fund Planned Parenthood any longer because it has new guidelines barring it from supporting organizations under investigation by local, state, or federal authorities. In a year that saw Congress fiercely debate the value of Planned Parenthood, a House subcommittee led by Representative Cliff Stearns—a Florida Republican—turned its attention to Planned Parenthood in September. Representative Stearns had been urged by Americans United for Life, a national anti-abortion group, to formally examine how Planned Parenthood spends and reports money. Nothing damaging has yet come out of the investigation, and it has no timetable for completion.
Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards said that she believes Komen’s decision is a concession to threats from anti-abortion groups. “We are alarmed and saddened that the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation appears to have succumbed to political pressure,” Richards said in a press statement. Or, as she put it more plainly to The New York Times, “I think that the Komen foundation has been bullied by right-wing groups.”
Indeed, Life Decisions International, an organization focused on challenging Planned Parenthood since 1992, publishes the names of Planned Parenthood’s supporters and partners. The idea is to incite enough public pressure to discourage businesses from collaborating in any way with Planned Parenthood. Komen was included in a recent “dishonorable mentions” list and was targeted for boycott. Also in December, LifeWay Christian Resources, a supplier and national store chain owned by the Southern Baptist Convention, recalled a pink Bible that raised funds for Komen because of the organization’s support of Planned Parenthood. But Life Decisions removed Komen from the list last month, issuing a statement indicating that the foundation “has recently informed us that Planned Parenthood is now ineligible for grants…” The Life Issues Institute, yet another anti-abortion group, celebrated Komen’s defunding of Planned Parenthood, with its executive director posting a Facebook message Tuesday saying that the “continued, collective efforts of the pro-life movement have paid off.”
Breast cancer is a special point of notice for anti-abortion organizers: they have long contended that abortion raises a woman’s risk of breast cancer, though the National Cancer Institute (NCI) does not recognize this as valid. The NCI states on its website: “The newer studies consistently showed no association between induced and spontaneous abortions and breast cancer risk.”
While the administration of the Komen foundation has long leaned conservative—its founder was an ambassador and chief of protocol in George W. Bush’s administration—it recently brought new right-wingers to its ranks. Komen hired Karen Handel last April as vice president of public policy. Handel had previously been a Republican candidate for governor of Georgia who received an endorsement from Sarah Palin during her campaign. Handel ran on a platform of defunding Planned Parenthood that explicitly included cutting off funds for breast and cervical cancer screenings, as well as a “Healthy Babies Initiative,” a program that provides pre- and post-natal support to at-risk mothers and newborns.
The impact of the lost funding on preventive health care for Planned Parenthood is substantial. Over five years, Planned Parenthood clinics have provided about 170,000 clinical breast exams and 70,000 mammogram referrals with Komen funding. It also pays for mammograms and ultrasounds for those who need them but cannot afford them. Nationally, Planned Parenthood provides about 770,000 breast cancer screenings each year. To stave off a financial bloodletting after the cessation of Komen’s support, Planned Parenthood has launched a Breast Health Emergency Fund to bring in immediate funding for local clinics to provide cancer screenings, care, and education.
Komen’s online community room quickly filled with members protesting the decision. Many indicated that they would be donating to Planned Parenthood to help fill the gap from lost Komen funds, and expressed concern that women would not have access to life-saving screenings. A 69-year-old breast cancer survivor who has been part of the online community since 2005 wrote that she is “hoping (Komen) will notify us as to where we can donate so that women who are turned away from Planned Parenthood have alternatives.” In an unrelated Komen Facebook posting that turned into a space for commenters to voice opinions about the Planned Parenthood decision, one woman wrote simply of the clinics: “They helped me.”
In response to the outrage over its decision, the Komen foundation released a statement that said, in part: “While it is regrettable when changes in priorities and policies affect any of our grantees, such as a longstanding partner like Planned Parenthood, we must continue to evolve to best meet the needs of the women we serve and most fully advance our mission.” But to both the media and the members of its own community, the Komen foundation ceased to make any staff member available to discuss the matter further.
If the Komen foundation is sincere in its desire to see a world without breast cancer for all women, cutting off support for care in Planned Parenthood health centers is nonsensical. One in five American women will visit one of Planned Parenthood’s nearly 800 clinics at some point in her lifetime, typically for the preventive services that makes up more than 90 percent of its work. It is a primary care provider to low-income women in particular, who have few other places to go. Komen’s funding was specifically designed to make sure that money was not a reason why women didn’t get the breast cancer screenings that would be crucial in saving their lives. To see Komen decide that this was a purpose less worthwhile than appeasing the pressure of anti-abortion groups is to feel disappointment at their cowardice.
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