An election, a superstorm, and high-profile battles over women’s health marked 2012 — not to mention a whole lot of Lena Dunham.
In January and February, the birth control wars raged. The year began with a major kerfuffle: Planned Parenthood got dropped as a funding partner by the Susan G. Komen Foundation — an intra-nonprofit war which felt like the inevitable result of 2011’s long political campaign to [demonize Planned Parenthood’s services] (http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/150685/how-planned-parenthood-became-a-liability/). But then something strange happened: the entire Internet revolted and Susan G. Komen had to bow and scrape its way back into the fold, but not before damaging its reputation perhaps irrecoverably.
Very soon thereafter, as if underscoring the point that standing up for women’s health shouldn’t be a political liability, the Obama administration took a bold but necessary stance: mandating no co-pay (not free!) birth control coverage under Obamacare. Needless to say, conservatives (looking at you, Catholic bishops!) were not pleased. The battle over this provision provided some memorable images: the testosterone-rife congressional panel, featuring stern-looking men in religious garb moralizing about women’s health, and the excluded activist Sandra Fluke, who was called a “slut” by Rush Limbaugh and was even attacked by some right-wingers for having a Jewish boyfriend.
A look back at breast cancer news from the past year reveals that a lot of what we thought we knew about the disease and the advocacy work surrounding it has been wrong.
First an ASME-nominted story by Lea Goldman in Marie Claire pointed out that, despite the roughly $6 billion raised annually for breast cancer research through pink cashmere sweater sets and 5k walks, there has been essentially no progress made.
Goldman writes: “Yet what many in the breast cancer community are loathe to admit, despite all these lifesaving developments, is that, in fact, we are really no closer to a cure today than we were two decades ago. In 1991, 119 women in the U.S. died of breast cancer every day. Today, that figure is 110 — a victory no one is bragging about. Breast cancer remains the leading cancer killer among women ages 20 to 59; more than 1.4 million new cases are diagnosed annually worldwide. Roughly 5 percent, or 70,000, breast cancer patients are diagnosed at a late stage, after the cancer has metastasized — that rate hasn’t budged since 1975, despite all the medical advances and awareness campaigns.”
Then there was the Susan G. Komen kerfuffle. The prominent breast cancer research and advocacy organization committed reputational suicide when it announced this past January that it was cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood. Komen, after an explosive social media-fueled backlash, ended up reversing course four days later, but the damage was done. Many previous supporters can’t move past the foundation’s politicization of breast cancer.
And now we have the latest news in the category of “you thought you knew breast cancer but…” This time, though, there is a little hope.
Not to flog a whimpering horse with a frayed pink ribbon, but since the Komen defunding of Planned Parenthood story broke last week, and the organization got whiplash from social media-fueled opposition before standing down and agreeing to rescind its ill-advised policy, more Jewish players in the story have emerged.
It turns out that Ari Fleischer, a fellow Jew, long-time friend and fellow Republican of Komen CEO Nancy Brinker, was secretly involved with interviewing candidates for the Komen vice president position filled by anti-abortion former political candidate Karen Handel. In an interview with at least one candidate, according to the blog Think Progress, he focused on how Komen should handle Planned Parenthood, which provides a range of reproductive health services, including breast exams and abortions.
Think Progress, which broke the story of Fleischer’s involvement, is a progressive policy-focused blog. The Washington Post then interviewed him further about his role in the debacle here.
Fleischer, of course, was President George W. Bush’s press secretary and since leaving the White House founded Ari Fleischer Sports Communications, a press management firm which counted Tiger Woods among its clients after the golfer’s public acknowledgement of his sex addiction.
We just heard that the Susan G. Komen board of directors reversed course and will continue funding Planned Parenthood after all. “We want to apologize to the American public for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women’s lives,” Founder and CEO Nancy G. Brinker said in a statement released from Komen’s Dallas headquarters.
It was a stunning admission by an organization that was bombarded with angry complaints over the move to drop Planned Parenthood — supposedly because of a change in Komen’s grant-making criteria. But the political motives were just below the surface, and it was difficult not to come to the conclusion that Komen cut off Planned Parenthood because it is the women’s health organization that the right now loves to demonize.
This abrupt turn-around was surely caused by the fury unleashed on the Internet, and that is both a civic wonder and a scary thought. Since I was one of the ones infuriated by Komen’s initial decision — expressed in this editorial — I’m relieved and proud that the voices with whom I agreed had this kind of impact.
But will I feel so thrilled if the subject was something I abhorred? If the fury was unleashed in a less inviting direction?
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:
Women who have long supported the breast cancer fundraising organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure are today taking off their pink ribbons (metaphorically, at least) to protest the news that it has cut off funding to Planned Parenthood because the health provider it is under investigation by a right-wing Republican member of the House of Representatives, Cliff Stearns.
Komen, which was started by its namesake’s sister, former U.S. ambassador Nancy Goodman Brinker, who was interviewed by The Sisterhood here, funds breast cancer research, screening and treatment programs. Brinker is Jewish and today is the group’s CEO.
Komen last year provided $680,000 to 19 Planned Parenthood affiliates for breast health screening exams. While Planned Parenthood has been targeted for years by anti-choice protesters and politicians who have pledged to defund it because it provides abortions, the organization, which has nearly 800 clinics, is probably also one of the nation’s largest providers of affordable women’s (and men’s) health services. The organization says that “more than 90 percent of Planned Parenthood’s healthcare is preventative,” including contraception, testing for STDs and screening for cancer, along with general reproductive health care.
Sometimes it seems as if October has always been Breast Cancer Awareness Month, with pink ribbons and fundraising events everywhere, but it was not at all the case three decades ago, when the words “breast cancer” weren’t uttered outside a hospital room and the norm for a woman being biopsied, if she was found to have cancer, was to wake up from the biopsy without a breast. The words “breast cancer” and “informed choice” were simply not part of the language; Susan G. Komen for the Cure has done much to change that.
Nancy Goodman Brinker founded the organization in 1982, two years after her sister Susan died of breast cancer at age 36. Now Brinker has written a memoir, “Promise Me: How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer.”
Brinker, a former U.S. Ambassador to Hungary and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, spoke recently with The Sisterhood about Susan G. Komen’s evolution, and the work left to be done to make breast cancer death a thing of the past.
The overwhelming assumption in many circles is that anti-Zionism is the only authentic feminist position. This knee-jerk position assumes that caring about human rights and equality necessitates a view Israel as a great patriarchal enemy.
I support Jewish-Muslim women’s peace efforts, and I completely support the notion that women must play a key role in bringing change to the Middle East. Women’s language, social tools and shared cultural history have the potential to alter the discourse of Palestinian-Israeli relations, by placing human relationships and care above power politics. But I don’t believe that by saying this, I should have to denounce Israel’s right to exist. I live in Israel; my family proudly serves in the army; my efforts to promote equity, fairness and democracy in Israel are based on an unwavering belief in Israel’s right to safely exist and defend its people. I believe in fighting injustice within Israeli society — not in attacking Israel at its core. But this nuanced approach rarely finds public expression, and that’s very challenging for me.
Once, an essay I wrote for The Jerusalem Post about anti-Sephardic discrimination in state-run religious schools was picked up by Web sites calling for the destruction of Israel. Shortly thereafter I was invited to contribute to an international feminist news portal as the sole Israeli representative. I still have not contributed, simply because I haven’t worked out how to write a feminist piece about women in Israel without it being used as fodder for Israel-bashing.
This issue came to the fore recently as Israelis were barred from a breast cancer conference held in Cairo.