Sisterhood Blog

How Planned Parenthood Became a Liability

By Sarah Seltzer

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It’s been quite a week (yet again) for the politicization of women’s health. As Debra Nussbaum Cohen and a Forward editorial noted, the Susan G. Komen foundation pulled its money form Planned Parenthood.

The money, of course, is not the issue. Planned Parenthood has already raised a chunk of what it lost from Komen from outraged supporters, and Komen’s reputation will tumble with many of its own former supporters after this. What was lost here, instead, was a sense of trust. This was a betrayal of the the idea that women’s breast cancer screenings need not be politicized.

But that ship had already had sailed with Komen, a case study in the danger of letting nonprofits get too entangled with corporate interests. “Big Pink” as many call the world of breast cancer awareness behemoths like Komen, has entrenched interests and they sadly don’t always line up with women’s. As Mara Einstein writes at the Ms. Magazine blog:

Susan G. Komen is funded, as you probably know, through numerous relationships with consumer brand companies. Come October we are swathed in pink thanks to Komen’s partnerships with Coca Cola (its “Minute Maid Pink Lemonade”), Yoplait (“Save Lids Save Lives”) and dozens of other companies making everything from pink hand tools (who doesn’t love a powder pink power drill?) to Tory Burch puffer jackets. Their sponsors are multinational corporations who have tied in with Komen to show affinity with women—the primary purchasers of their products.

I suspect that not only anti-abortion factions, but also corporate sponsors, pressured Komen. Nothing causes a business to stop in its tracks faster than the fear of a) losing money, and b) bad publicity. It is not that anti-choicers have so much influence on Komen; it’s that they can have so much influence on Komen’s sponsors.

This echoes a lot of the critique first raised so memorably and brilliantly by Barbara Ehrenreich in her seminal essay “Cancerland.” A taste of Ehrenreich’s acerbic wit and insight on the subject:

Now breast cancer has blossomed from wallflower to the most popular girl at the corporate charity prom. While AIDS goes begging and low-rent diseases like tuberculosis have no friends at all, breast cancer has been able to count on Revlon, Avon, Ford, Tiffany, Pier 1, Estee Lauder, Ralph Lauren, Lee Jeans, Saks Fifth Avenue, JC Penney, Boston Market, Wilson athletic gear – and I apologize to those I’ve omitted. You can “shop for the cure” during the week when Saks donates 2 percent of sales to a breast-cancer fund; “wear denim for the cure” during Lee National Denim Day, when for a $5 donation you get to wear blue jeans to work. You can even “invest for the cure,” in the Kinetics Assets Management’s new no-load Medical Fund, which specializes entirely in businesses involved in cancer research.

But beyond the issues of corproate “pinkwashing” around a serious health issue, here’s another reason that this is such a sad moment: the decision brings with it the knowledge that the right-wing’s steady war on women’s health has begun to take its toll, that the drive to make Planned Parenthood — once a mainstream organization supported by the Nixons and Bushes of the world — into an untouchable political liability is beginning to work.

I have to wonder how much the pro-choice movement’s own PR strategy of focusing on Planned Parenthood support of screenings and pap smears and so on at the expense of focusing on abortions has allowed the group’s ideological opponents to target those very things. I wonder if at some point during the long, long year for women’s healthcare that was 2011 we should have shouted “providing safe abortions is a moral good!” or “abortions are a necessary part of comprehensive health care!” instead of “but, but Planned Parenthood doesn’t just do abortions — they also do cancer screenings!” And then they came for our cancer screenings. Just as abortion has become a pariah, a separate class of healthcare instead of a part of it, wonderful organizations that perform abortions as part of a full range of health services are finding themselves cut off from the mainstream.

Here’s the thing. Women’s health will always be political, because we still live in a patriarchy, one in which every gain is met with backlash. As Ehrenreich notes, wryly, about breast cancer — even its current lack of politicization is political, its wide mainstream support a safe alternative to radical critique of our society and its effect on women’s health:

…after all, breast cancer would hardly be the darling of corporate America if its complexion changed from pink to green. It is the very blandness of breast cancer, at least in mainstream perceptions, that makes it an attractive object of corporate charity and a way for companies to brand themselves friends of the middle-aged female market. …as Cindy Pearson, director of the National Women’s Health Network, the organizational progeny of the Women’s Health Movement, puts it more caustically: “Breast cancer provides a way of doing something for women, without being feminist.”

In the mainstream of breast-cancer culture, one finds very little anger, no mention of possible environmental causes, few complaints about the fact that, in all but the more advanced, metastasized cases, it is the “treatments,” not the disease, that cause illness and pain.

Ehrenreich writes of the fact that breast cancer used to be taboo because of its associations with women’s bodies and remotely with their sexuality. Now the disease’s major “cure champion” is doing to Planned Parenthood what was once done to cancer survivors.

Amanda Marcotte explains some of this phenomenon at Slate, noting that it’s in the right wing’s interest to separate women’s health into “good girl” and “bad girl” categories, even though the reality is all of women’s health concerns are intimately linked.

Breast cancer, however, can strike the lifelong virgin, the married woman who only has sex for procreation, and the dirty fornicator (i.e. the vast majority of American women) alike. Because of this, anti-choicers have tried to create a rift between women’s health advocates who focus on breast cancer and those who focus on reproductive health concerns below the waist. Today, they had a victory with Komen’s act of cowardice.


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