The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, the world’s largest breast cancer charity, has always been fairly conservative. Its founder, Nancy Brinker, is a major Republican donor; in 2000, she was a George W. Bush “Pioneer,” raising at least $100,000 for his campaign, and Bush later appointed her ambassador to Hungary.
Still, until recently, it wore its politics lightly. “The fact that Komen is led by a Republican has never really translated to the way it’s been perceived among women in this country,” says Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), who has chaired many Komen events. “It’s been perceived as a nonprofit doing good work.”
That changed on Tuesday, when the foundation announced that it would no longer fund breast cancer screenings by Planned Parenthood. The money at stake wasn’t much, less than $700,000. But its withdrawal sent a signal that Komen has taken sides in the Republican effort to discredit the country’s largest provider of reproductive health care.
The ostensible reason for Komen’s decision is a new policy prohibiting it from funding organizations under government investigation. Planned Parenthood is the subject of an inquiry by Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL), who is searching for evidence that government money has been used to fund abortions. But Stearns’s investigation is a highly partisan affair based solely on evidence from anti-abortion groups.
“We question the basis for the investigation and whether Planned Parenthood is being singled out as part of a Republican vendetta against an organization that provides family planning and other medical care to low-income women and men,” Reps. Diana DeGette and Henry Waxman, ranking members of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said in a letter to Stearns.
What really happened seems clear: Komen bowed to political pressure. Until quite recently, Planned Parenthood wasn’t controversial among Republicans. It had a long history of conservative backing—Dwight Eisenhower once co-chaired the Planned Parenthood Federation along with Harry Truman, and Barry Goldwater championed it. It’s not surprising that Ann Romney once donated to the organization; lots of Republican women did. And pro-choice Republican women like Brinker were fairly common—even Laura Bush said she backed Roe v. Wade.
In recent years, though, Republicans have become much more absolutist in their opposition to abortion, which has bled over into family planning. The right has run a systematic campaign to demonize and discredit Planned Parenthood, and Komen’s decision shows that it’s working.
A central part of that campaign is to deny that Planned Parenthood provides crucial health services besides abortion. Last year, Sen. John Kyl claimed that abortion is “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.” (When his office was informed that only 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s work is abortion-related, a spokesman said the senator’s remark was “not intended to be a factual statement.”)
“We’re talking about breast cancer here! We’re not talking about abortion,” says an exasperated Rep. Jackie Speier.
“Planned Parenthood is first and foremost an abortion business, but Planned Parenthood and its allies will say almost anything to try and cover up that fact and preserve its taxpayer funding,” said the young anti-abortion activist Lila Rose, whose organization, Live Action, purported to “expose” the absence of mammogram machines in Planned Parenthood clinics. In fact, Planned Parenthood performs manual breast exams and refers patients who need mammograms to radiologists, just like private gynecologists. The only deception here is by those who pretend that there’s anything untoward on Planned Parenthood’s part.
As the Republican Party’s stance toward Planned Parenthood has changed, so has Komen’s. In April, it hired Karen Handel as its new senior vice president of public policy. In 2010, when Handel ran, unsuccessfully, for the Georgia Republican gubernatorial nomination, she campaigned against abortion and Planned Parenthood—and won Sarah Palin’s endorsement. Meanwhile, other Republicans have put pressure on Brinker. David Vitter, the Louisiana Republican senator whose career as a family values champion has somehow survived multiple prostitution scandals, told Newsmax that he wrote her a letter in May “urging her to take this step.” There was probably no way Komen could maintain links to both Planned Parenthood and the GOP.
In the end, the decision will probably hurt the Komen Foundation more than Planned Parenthood. Many activists had already criticized the foundation for its ties to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Now women’s health advocates all over the country are reacting with fury, inundating Komen’s Facebook page with complaints. “I’ll be joining thousands of other women and men who will boycott SGK due to this decision,” wrote one of thousands of commenters. “Pink will stink!”
Meanwhile, in the 24 hours after Komen announced its decision, Planned Parenthood raised $400,000 in online donations from outraged supporters. The Amy and Lee Fikes Foundation donated $250,000 to a new Planned Parenthood “Breast Health Emergency Fund.” Komen’s Connecticut affiliate publicly objected to the new policy, writing on its Facebook wall, “Susan G. Komen for the Cure Connecticut enjoys a great partnership with Planned Parenthood, and is currently funding Planned Parenthood of Southern New England. We understand, and share, in the frustration around this situation.” The Denver Komen affiliate said it planned to continue grants to Planned Parenthood despite the national policy.
Still, Komen’s shift reifies the right-wing myth that Planned Parenthood merely pretends to offer legitimate medical services. It represents a blow to the idea that any aspect of women’s health care can remain unpoliticized. “We’re talking about breast cancer here! We’re not talking about abortion,” says an exasperated Speier, who spoke out against the group’s decision Wednesday on the House floor. But when it comes to Planned Parenthood, Republicans can’t talk about anything else.