“Give Boobs a Chance,” read the sign at the pink “Boob Camp” desk where I registered for my first Susan G. Komen race. As I crossed the finish line to the applause of grateful survivors, I sensed the praise of my mother and grandmother, in whose honor I ran. I return to Komen events, impeccably managed by flocks of dedicated volunteers, for the sense of community and because I feel like Rocky in a fight to reorder global karma — to help Komen realize its goal “to end breast cancer forever,” the disease that kills more women worldwide than any other cancer.
Imagine my dismay as Facebook exploded with denunciations and contempt for the iconic breast-cancer advocate who'd just announced that it would cease funding Planned Parenthood, creating a bitter rift involving the abortion debate. The most shocking Facebook censure came from a cancer survivor who wrote, “I have ripped my pink ribbon off of my jacket. … It is sad that I have to tell my daughters someday that this was my decision …. politics SUCKS!” Incredibly, this comment garnered 37 “likes.” As the “Komen betrayal of women's health” narrative went viral, I tried to Think Again.
My first thought was how negligent Komen board trustees (charged with keeping Komen out of controversies) were to have allowed the nation's largest and most prestigious breast-cancer advocate to get embroiled in the no-win abortion debate. Since Americans are split evenly on abortion rights and even trending pro-life according to Gallup, Pew, Marist and Rasmussen surveys, why would Komen have jeopardized its mission, donor base and ability to appeal to all Americans, irrespective of their abortion views? I wanted to damn them were they not already damned — if they do or if they don't.
True, everyone makes mistakes. However, unlike Roman Polanski, who claimed, “I did not have a reputation to defend,” Komen does. Having been cast as a bedfellow of religious extremists and an enemy combatant on the battlefield of abortion rights, Komen's blue chip, four-star rating and credibility are in tatters. While there are many cancer charities from which to choose, none rivals Komen as a mobilizer of volunteerism and charity — Komen makes it so fun, accessible and meaningful.
Desperate to preserve Komen's reputation, founder and volunteer CEO Nancy Brinker faced the media to explain Komen's need to exit the culture wars by disentangling from injurious and distracting “reproductive issues and debates.” However, Andrea Mitchell, et al, wouldn't hear it, as if channeling “America's anger.”
You'd think Komen was actually redirecting funds toward the “1 percent.” The L.A. Times editorialized that “Komen's name will be connected more with ugly politics than with pink ribbons,” the Yale School of Public Health leaked its reconsideration of Brinker as commencement speaker, and hackers wrote, “Help us run over poor women on our way to the bank” on Komen's website.
Stumbling and stammering through a 72-hour public-relations debacle, Komen finally waved the white flag by apologizing “for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women's lives.” Later, Nancy Pelosi triumphantly declared, “Women's health has a big victory this morning.”
Pelosi should heed Shakespeare's admonition: “Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot that it do singe yourself.” In truth, this unfortunate dust-up between two significant women's health organizations was less one giant leap for womankind and more one small step for abortion. Now in the line of fire from both sides of the abortion debate, Komen is beaten and bloodied, as is its potential “to end breast cancer forever.” Furthermore, women's health advocates undermined their credibility by accusing Komen of hurting women, even though they knew the redirected Komen funds were both meager (0.01% of Planned Parenthood's budget) and would be redeployed well.
Not as obvious is the longer-term damage to Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion provider and arguably the most politically polarizing social service organization despite delivering vital (non-abortion) health services to millions of lower-income women. Though Planned Parenthood banked $3 million from the crisis, in making them the Roach Motel of charities — you may enter, but never leave — zealous pro-choice supporters of Planned Parenthood frighten would-be funders and affiliates.
Herein lie the rub, hypocrisy and stunning irony: When those who purport to be “pro-choice” tell a private charity like Komen they must pass a litmus test outside its mission's boundaries “or else,” they're not only depriving Komen of choice, they're denying Komen the freedom to act in accordance with its primary interest — to prevent death due to breast cancer. Why can't pro-choice advocates call Komen a blessing and say, Amen?
To those who frame the abortion argument around a woman's right to choose, Think Again. Otherwise, the Komen Foundation and breast cancer victims won't be the last hostages holed up at Hotel California, where “You can checkout any time you like, but you can never leave!”