The Perils of Politicizing Breast Cancer

There’s nothing to be gained by politicizing women’s health, but there’s a lot to lose.

Consider this: Two years ago, the Susan G. Komen Foundation walked into a hornet’s nest when it did something that was fundamentally opposed tn-WOMAN-AND-DOCTOR-large570o its mission. It jumped into a controversy that was all about politics and nothing about breast cancer patients and survivors.

After years of subsidizing cancer screenings and education in Planned Parenthood clinics, the foundation announced it would no longer fund these programs. The move came at a time when right-wing opposition to Planned Parenthood was exploding in state legislatures and in Congress.

Here’s what happened next, according to the L.A. Times:

The decision by the nation’s leading breast cancer charity to defund the nation’s leading provider of health services to women sparked a predictable uproar, and Komen reversed the decision after only three days.

But the damage was immediate and, plainly, lasting. It turned out that the original decision had been driven by Karen Handel, the organization’s vice president for public policy, who had joined Komen after losing a race for governor of Georgia on an extremist anti-abortion platform. She resigned from Komen days after the reversal.

As the leader of a national policy and advocacy organization, I toil in the political weeds, and I can tell you, it’s an enormously complex and challenging environment. You can’t navigate these waters with a single press release or announcement.

The Komen foundation may have thought they could earn some goodwill from a vocal and powerful segment of conservative lawmakers by signing on to their rejection of Planned Parenthood. They didn’t see themselves as transforming into a political lobby. They were just going to be a little bit political for a day or two.

That didn’t work out too well. In the wake of the move against Planned Parenthood, the foundation’s income from contributions, sponsors and entry fees for events like their signature Race for the Cure dropped by $77 million, or 22% of their income from the previous year.

Frankly, that’s a fitting response to Komen’s attempt to use the grief and courage of breast cancer patients as a means of scoring political points against a perceived “liberal” enemy. Nobody asks a woman who comes to a reproductive health clinic to declare her party affiliation, and no one who looks to a foundation that promotes women’s health for assistance should be made to feel like a player in a political drama.

An editorial by Maureen Shaw Kennedy, MA, RN in the American Journal of Nursing put it this way:

If state efforts to cut all funding for Planned Parenthood and its affiliates succeed, who will provide the safety net for the 3 million Americans, largely women, who rely on these entities for health care annually? Those in the defunding camp claim that these women can get health care elsewhere, but why must they be forced to do that? The real question is, why should women’s access to health services be dependent on whatever ideologies currently prevail among legislators?

It wasn’t so long ago that women were prohibited from voting or owning property. We laugh now at the ridiculousness of this — but have we really progressed all that much if women’s health and lifestyle choices can still be subject to the approval of others?

Don’t get me wrong. I strongly believe in political engagement, speaking truth to power and standing up to anyone who would deny women any aspect of their reproductive health care needs. But the personal isn’t always the political — and that’s my message for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October. To read all posts in the series, visit here.

Originally published on Terry O’Neill’s Huffington Post blog on 10/22/2014

One response to “The Perils of Politicizing Breast Cancer

  1. The Komen Foundation could have repaired some of the damage if they had sent a letter of apology to Planned Parenthood. But they did not. All they did was send a PR letter to former contributors apologizing for what happened. That’s not good enough.

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