On January 31, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation decided that it would stop giving funds to Planned Parenthood to perform breast cancer exams. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America, through its affiliated service providers, performed almost 750,000 breast exams and breast care services in 2010. During that year, cancer screening and prevention care made up 14.5% of the services Planned Parenthood provided. In comparison, although abortion services are what Planned Parenthood is perhaps best known for, they comprised only 3% of the services provided. Despite the Komen foundation’s efforts to deny it, one cannot shake the feeling that the choice to pull the grant from Planned Parenthood was based on the foundation’s desire to dissociate themselves from Planned Parenthood and its support of a woman’s right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term. The idea that pulling the funding was divorced from Planned Parenthood’s ideological stance on reproductive freedom is implausible, given that Komen’s anti-choice VP, Karen Handel, resigned over the issue after having led the defunding decision (and after calling Planned Parenthood “a gigantic bully”). The mechanism used to de-fund Planned Parenthood was a new rule the Komen foundation adopted which seems, on its face, applicable to any grant recipient. The rule, which the foundation enacted “to fulfill [its] fiduciary duty” to donors, stipulates that it will not give funds to an organization under investigation. However, this particular decision to stop funding seems so closely connected to the political situation and to the perception of Planned Parenthood as a provider of abortion services, that it was almost divorced from public health considerations. Indeed, Komen’s top public health official, Mollie Williams, apparently resigned in protest over the de-funding decision. After all, the Komen grants to Planned Parenthood affiliates totaled only $680,000 in 2011. The announcement caused such a stir—the New York Times Editorial called it “A Painful Betrayal”—that the decision was reversed on February 3. The Komen foundation has issued statements on its website trying to explain that the new rule is supposedly meant to dissociate the foundation from any organization under investigation. But the rule as passed applied to political, as well as criminal, investigations. So what does this affair tell us?
The sad thing about all of this is that it reveals the truth about how our society views women’s health. Despite changes in healthcare law, being a woman is still a preexisting condition. Even though there are estimates that there will be almost 227,000 new cases of breast cancer in women alone (breast cancer can affect men, though occurrences are rare) in 2012, Komen, one of the nation’s largest cancer advocacy and research groups decided to deny many poor women access to screening services. This is in spite of the fact that Komen advocates early detection through screening as the best method of lowering the risk of death from breast cancer. Protecting women’s health has been moved down on the collective priority list; we care more about preventing women from exercising control over their bodies and futures than following through on our commitment to the health of our mothers, sisters, and daughters. And yet, the pushback was strong enough that Komen reversed its decision. This is what I take away from all this, and what I hope is going to be the lesson we learn: there is a strong voice for women’s health in our society, real support for women’s autonomy and well-being. It’s a shame it takes something like this for that force to become evident. Reproductive freedom is women’s health, and women’s health concerns us all.