Monday, February 6, 2012

Susan G. Komen Foundation: The Heathers of Women's Health Back Down

Discount Gun Distributors of Seattle sure picked the wrong week to try to help the little ladies.

The email in my in-box last week was titled "Disappointing News from a Friend." Its tone was oddly familiar, not from politics or fundraising but from old memories.

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards broke the news to her supporters this way:

"I wanted to share some extremely discouraging news from a partner and longtime ally for women's health. The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation has announced that it will stop supporting lifesaving breast cancer screening for low-income and underserved women at Planned Parenthood health centers."

In other words, Nancy says we can't sit at the popular lunch table anymore. 

Leaving aside all the excellent policy reasons this move was avoidable and bone-headed on SGK's part, the headlines made it clear this was also personal:

"Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Throws Planned Parenthood Under the Bus" (Mother Jones, January 31)

"Komen for the Cure Sells Out Women, Again" (Salon, February 1)

"A Painful Betrayal" (Editorial, New York Times, February 2)

"By defunding Planned Parenthood, the Susan G Komen Foundation betrays women" (The Guardian, February 2)

"Komen Deserves Backlash for Snubbing Women" (Susan Nielsen, columnist The Oregonian, February 2)

I wondered, would a funding purge between any other previously allied charities have garnered these reactions? 

It took me a few days to understand:

It was the water fountain.
You know the one: The fountain your best friend Claire's new friend Brandi tells you to meet her at. The one in the hall halfway between P.E. and Geography class. The water fountain where this new friend Brandi is going to tell you that your old friend Claire doesn't like you anymore. They are best friends now.

Shifting loyalties, power plays, and allies who don't have your back: all of a sudden, the Susan G. Komen Fund was that friend from girlhood. We all had one. Most of us had several. Some of us were that friend.

Although I strongly support choice, for me this debacle isn't really about which side of the issue you're on. It's also not about something as kneejerk and trite as "supporting each other." It's about how women share power, money, and the limelight, especially when the power is over their own bodies, the money is their money, and the limelight is increasingly poisonous and divisive.

Each side holds in trust a sacred set of answers for women's health: breast health, in this case, but reproductive health generally. If the Susan G. Komen Fund made a conscious decision to become more politically conservative and come down on the side against choice, so be it; but not like this. Not by pulling the rug out from under a trusted colleague in front of everyone. 

Since women have only had real power over dollars and policy for a short time, it's extremely bad form to break suddenly and publicly as SGK did with Planned Parenthood. On top of that, SGK is no ordinary funder. The Susan G. Komen Fund is powerful and popular and, well, pretty. The Susan G. Komen Fund gets invited everywhere. Almost everyone wants a date with the Susan G. Komen Fund, and everyone wants its pink stuff.

The Susan G. Komen Fund for the Cure is a charity that can literally decide who sits at the lunch table for women's health, spending about “a million dollars a year in donor funds” aggressively going after other organizations that dare to use the phrase “for the cure," according to a 2010 article by The Huffington Post's Laura Bassett, "including small charities like Kites for a Cure, Par for the Cure, Surfing for a Cure, Cupcakes for a Cure, and even a dog-sledding event called Mush for the Cure."

Bitter Pill for Both Sides
As it happened, the move backfired. It struck a chord, not just because of the issue but because of who was affected (poor women) and how it had been done (rudely). And we fought back. When the Fund backed off its original hard line, we rejoiced. It was a Hollywood moment, standing up to the mean girls.

Damage is done, though. You may see Nancy Brinker and Cecile Richards together at a party, but no more pinky shakes or bff texting for them. The death blow to the friendship between Big Pink and women's choice is done, all because somebody else got in the way. As usual.

When the Komen Fund backpedaled by Friday (though not to retract completely, as was erroneously reported), a lot of people began calling the event a blessing in disguise. Hadn't it shown us how deep the support for abortion rights runs? Hadn't it been a wake-up call to the Komen Fund, and perhaps to the radical right?

Ironically, Komen's new position puts it squarely where it probably intended to go all along. I will be surprised if Planned Parenthood--"eligible" though it may still be for Komen grants for breast care--doesn't suffer a quiet attrition at best, or a not-so-subtle ebbing of funds very soon.

Killing each other with kindness is something women do well.

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