Five Take-Aways From the Komen Fiasco

Now that the dust from the Susan Komen/Planned Parenthood mess is starting to settle, it’s time to ask: What should we learn from all this?

Background. I’m sure many of you have already heard more about this story than you wanted to know, but it came out in (sometimes deceptive) dribs and drabs. So before we start drawing conclusions, let’s get our facts straight. (Feel free to skip ahead.)

The context for this week’s events is a long-term campaign to annihilate Planned Parenthood that has been fought at the federal and state government level, as well as in the board rooms of private organizations like Komen. (If you want an even longer context, the attack on Planned Parenthood is part of a defund-the-Left campaign that has already taken down ACORN and is working on the public employees unions and NPR.)

The Susan Komen for the Cure Foundation has been under pressure from anti-abortion* groups for years now, and it began crumbling well before this week. Last April, Komen hired Karen Handel as their VP for Public Policy. Handel was a Sarah-Palin-endorsed candidate for Governor of Georgia who pledged to defund Planned Parenthood if elected. Jezebel comments:

How curious! A person with what looks like a personal vendetta against Planned Parenthood joins the ranks of an organization that provides funding to Planned Parenthood, and soon, that organization “defunds” Planned Parenthood. claimed that Komen had also given in on another abortion-related issue: embryonic stem cells. But the press release they link to has since vanished from the Komen site and nobody is sure what’s going on.

Tuesday, Planned Parenthood announced that Komen had told it that it would not be eligible for future grants because a new rule prevented grants to organizations that are under local, state, or federal investigation. Planned Parenthood is being investigated by Rep. Cliff Stearns, but a congressional investigation doesn’t have to be based on anything more than a committee chair’s whim, and this one seems not to be.

Critics have since pointed to Komen’s continuing relationships with other investigated organizations, like Penn State, so this all has the appearance of an elaborate rationalization. Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported:

three sources with direct knowledge of the Komen decision-making process told me that the rule was adopted in order to create an excuse to cut off Planned Parenthood.

The public backlash started immediately, and everyone agrees that Komen handled it badly. (I’m guessing they expected Planned Parenthood to slink away quietly rather than take the dispute public.) A communications specialist for nonprofits summed up: Komen had “accidentally rebranded” itself.

Komen for the Cure, it seems, is no longer a breast cancer charity, but a pro-life breast cancer charity.

Komen didn’t start getting its message out until late Wednesday, and it was garbled. Jay Rosen described Komen CEO and Founder Nancy Brinker’s interview with Andrea Mitchell on Thursday as “a train wreck”. Brinker didn’t say anything about investigations, but tried to turn attention to other policy changes that, once again, seemed to apply to no one other than Planned Parenthood.

Friday Brinker issued an apology to the public for “recent decisions” and said that “disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political”. Most people are taking that as capitulation. But it may not be. Maybe when new Planned Parenthood grant proposals come in, Komen will find new excuses to reject them. Handel is still on the job, after all.

OK, now some observations.

1. Be hopeful but not cocky. Twice in the last few weeks we’ve seen an outrageous attack get beaten back by public outrage. The corporatists had to retreat on SOPA and the theocrats on Planned Parenthood. Events like these are energizing, and it’s tempting to think that right-wing forces are on the run.

They’re not. The big media companies already have a new plan to control the Internet, and the campaign against Planned Parenthood will continue as well. When these forces operate in full public view and underestimate their opposition, they get beat. That’s encouraging, but you have to figure they’ll learn to be more careful.

2. The Christian Right continues to move towards apartheid. The whole premise of Komen is that “cure breast cancer” is such a simple and obviously good goal that we should all be able to unite around it, despite our other differences. The Christian Right is saying no to this. If Komen won’t define itself as an anti-abortion breast cancer charity, they won’t support it.

(Somebody is bound to comment that the Left is doing the same thing if Komen won’t fund Planned Parenthood. Not at all. If Komen had identified somebody else who would provide the same services better — no problem. Instead, Komen made a political decision to appease right-wingers and gave a series of bogus after-the-fact rationalizations. That’s what was outrageous.)

You can see the same thing happening all around us. At my local baseball stadium I have heard between-innings announcements for a Christian taxi service. God forbid a Muslim or an atheist should drive me somewhere.

3. There are other reasons not to like Komen. Komen had managed to identify itself as THE anti-breast-cancer charity, and no one wants to be pro-breast-cancer. So lots of people had been sitting on their criticism.

The Planned Parenthood mess gave them permission to come out of the closet and gave the general public permission to listen. These are the main points.

  • Less than half of Komen’s budget is spent on research, screening, or treatment. Overhead and marketing take up 22%, and education 36%. Of the education chunk, much is worthwhile, but a certain amount of marketing and overhead seems hidden there as well.
  • Komen is litigious. Komen spends almost $1 million a year making sure that no other anti-cancer charity uses its trademarked “for the cure” phrase. I don’t think anyone has totalled up what these suits cost the small charities Komen sues.
  • Corporations get a big marketing bang for a small charitable buck. Think Before You Pink asks some skeptical questions about those pink-ribbon products. BTW, the pink handgun looks like a hoax. But the KFC pink bucket is real.
  • Pinkwashing. Corporations whose products increase breast cancer risk can hide behind a pink ribbon. (BTW, anti-abortion groups try to turn this around by saying that abortion causes breast cancer. This is long-debunked nonsense repeated only by anti-science types like Rick Santorum.) Komen gets so much corporate cooperation precisely because it soft-pedals environmental causes and regulatory solutions, and instead focuses breast-cancer awareness on individual actions like mammograms and treatment. There’s a subtle victim-blaming vibe there. Pay no attention to that corporate carcinogen behind the curtain.

4. Charity has its limits. A common conservative/libertarian fantasy is that private charity can replace the functions of government. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all that good-deed-doing stuff could happen through voluntary generosity, with no taxes or audits or anything?

When you look at the big McCharities like United Way and a handful of others — a stratosphere Komen has recently entered — you see what’s wrong with that idea. All of them end up doing an enormous amount of marketing, image-building, and other rah-rah stuff to keep both themselves and their issues from slipping people’s minds. (My wife, a 15-year breast cancer survivor, hit her limit when football teams started wearing pink accessories that clash with their uniforms.)

The amount that shows up as overhead on a McCharity’s annual report is just a fraction of the true overhead. How much time and effort do participating corporations put into their United Way drives? How much money do individuals waste buying merchandise they don’t need and wouldn’t have bought without the charity tie-in? If you total up not just what the McCharity takes in, but what the donors and volunteers actually put out, you see that the true overhead is astronomical.

Mass-market private charity is a really, really inefficient way to do just about anything.

Like cure breast cancer. Almost every woman is at risk to some degree. Almost every man has a mother, wife, sister, daughter, or friend at risk. So curing breast cancer is in the general interest.

And breast cancer is not going away this year or next, and maybe not for a long time. So we may be facing decades of wide receivers wearing pink gloves just to keep our interest and awareness sufficiently high.

Imagine: Wouldn’t it be great if there were some way to decide once and for all that we as a people want to beat breast cancer? We wouldn’t have to stay perpetually amped-up about it, we could just commit to finding a cure and get on with our lives.

Amazingly, there is a way! We could elect representatives who could all meet somewhere and decide what each person’s fair share is. Then we could have that amount deducted from our paychecks automatically, without all the hoopla and overhead and waste.

Government — that’s what it’s called. Whenever we want to do something in the general interest and to keep doing it year after year, the right tool for the job is government.

5. Supporters of abortion rights need to take the initiative. All we accomplished with Komen this week was to preserve the status quo. The other side continues to pick the battlefields and hammer away. Sometimes we stop them and sometimes we don’t. That’s not recipe for victory.

Daily Kos’ Meteor Blades says “So, clearly, self-defense is crucial. But we need offense as well.” He then outlines steps to advance the family-planning* cause, including the repeal of TRAP laws, opening new women’s-health clinics, and ending government funding of abstinence-only sex education “which amounts, in many cases, to no education at all.”

Blades doesn’t go far enough. We also need to take the intellectual, moral, and religious initiative.

Here’s a place to start: The  anti-abortion movement’s most extreme positions (opposition to embryonic stem cell research and to post-conception forms of birth control like IUDs and the morning-after pill) follow from the belief that a one-celled organism, the newly fertilized ovum, has the full moral value of an infant.

Anti-abortion advocates usually get away with presenting this as a principled religious conviction, part of that old-time religion.

We need to point out loudly and often that in fact this is a nutty idea that has no historical, traditional, or scriptural basis. People don’t oppose abortion because they believe on religious principle that a zygote has the moral value of a child. Quite the opposite: This an ad hoc belief invented for the purpose of opposing abortion, and the faithful simply ignore many of its inconvenient consequences.

The Wikipedia article on ensoulment is worth reading in this regard. Aristotle, the Talmud, and all early Christian sources agreed that the soul entered the body well after conception — 40 days at the earliest. Nobody dreamed up ensoulment-at-conception until the Middle Ages, and even then the infallible popes went back and forth about it for centuries.

The very idea of a “moment” of ensoulment is one of those theological contrivances rejected by every folk culture that has ever existed, including ours. Intuitively, we all understand that the moral value of the fetus (like everything else about it) develops gradually, beginning somewhere around zero at conception and becoming immeasurable by the time of birth. In actual practice everyone — even a conservative Christian who “believes” in ensoulment-at-conception — understands that late miscarriages are more tragic than early miscarriages, and that the death of an infant is more tragic yet.

Consider, for example, that the majority of fertilized ova fail to implant in the uterus and abort spontaneously without the woman even being aware of her pregnancy. Anyone who honestly believed these were full-fledged human souls would regard failure-to-implant as the greatest health problem and greatest human tragedy of all time. But where is the religious monument to these billions of souls? Where is the big research program to do something about this holocaust?

Nowhere, because deep down no one really believes that a fertilized ovum has the moral value of a baby. The whole idea has been trumped up to justify opposition to abortion. It does not deserve the respect it is typically granted.

*I am sick of the jockeying over labels on both sides. Pro-life and pro-choice both sound good to focus groups, but they are neither precise nor accurate. So I’ll call you “pro-life” only if you have an across-the-board life agenda: not just anti-abortion, but anti-death-penalty, anti-war, pro-universal-healthcare, and maybe even vegetarian. If you’re just against abortion, I’ll call you “anti-abortion” or maybe “pro-fetus-rights”.

Similarly, I could imagine an across-the-board pro-choice agenda — not just abortion rights but drug legalization, anti-gun-control, right to die, open borders, and so on — but I don’t see many people pushing that either. So if you’re just in favor of a woman’s right to choose an abortion, I’ll describe your position as “abortion rights” or “pro-family-planning”.

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  • Tim  On February 6, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    It’s always funny to me when critics of big money corruption think that the government is somehow a safehaven from the like. Here’s a clue- the government, and taxation, are even *more* corrupt than any private funding could possibly imagine being, if only because private funding only gets what is freely given, whereas government presumes a right to take by force because it demands and insists that it deserves the money, or that you somehow now owe the money because it has decided as such. Until then, I was right with you.

  • Colin  On February 7, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    “A common conservative/libertarian fantasy is that private charity can replace the functions of government.”

    It used to, back when government was smaller. Heck, it did a lot when *I* was growing up. The local Methodist church distributed surplus food (some from the govt) for free . . . virtually all people went to church, and got help from their congregation.

    And they still do:

    Oh, and the poor “acted” poor. They didn’t waste money on cell phones, cable tv, fancy tennis shoes, etc. Hmmm…Doug, you may be able to get a good story out of that difference…..I’m not brave enough to touch it. 🙂

    • weeklysift  On February 8, 2012 at 9:26 am

      That kind of charity works a lot better in a community where rich and poor live side-by-side and go to the same churches. In this gated-community era, that happens a lot less than it used to.

      I’ll give you a personal example. My retail weakness is winter coats. I have way more of them than any human being actually needs, even in New England. And every spring I can’t resist some close-out sale at the local L.L. Bean outlet. (Thinsulate? Gortex? For how much?)

      Whenever I see one of those “donate your coat” boxes at the mall, I think I ought to give a few away, but I don’t. I know that somewhere people need good winter coats, but those people are pretty abstract to me.

      But what if every Sunday I saw people I know shivering as they came into church? I don’t think I could look at my closet quite the same way.

      Instead, I go to church in a suburb where most people are well off. Not everybody has everything I do, but they don’t look cold.

      • Anonymous  On November 26, 2012 at 8:18 pm

        I like the way you clearly identify problems, and that’s obviously the first step toward solutions, but if you seriously want to argue that compulsion is the only solution (let alone even a legitimate one worth considering), the topic deserves way more discussion.

    • weeklysift  On February 8, 2012 at 9:34 am

      One more thing: on the poor acting poor. I see what you’re pointing at, but I wonder if it’s mainly the details that have changed. Read “Oliver Twist”. The complaint that charity cases waste their money on luxuries is perennial. Somebody with a better education than mine could probably find an appropriate quote in Shakespeare.

      • Kim Cooper  On February 11, 2012 at 8:25 pm

        I am reading Elizabeth Warren’s book from 2003, called The Two Income Trap. In it she debunks the myth that poor people spend more money than they should on luxuries. She uses actual studies and statistics to show that it is not generally true.

  • scyllacat  On February 8, 2012 at 9:25 am

    Thanks for this, and thank you, men of privilege who feel forced by the government to pay for things they don’t want.

    • Anonymous  On November 26, 2012 at 8:19 pm

      I wonder if people “feel forced” because um.. they are?

      • scyllacat  On April 12, 2013 at 10:30 am

        And the roads and the schools, yeah, yeah, eff you, too.

  • weeklysift  On November 28, 2012 at 8:14 am

    Interesting that this discussion has turned into a discussion of the legitimacy of government action. I discussed that point in more detail in “Why I’m Not a Libertarian”.


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