The real tragedy of the Komen story
posted at 6:16 pm on February 2, 2012 by Jazz Shaw
Yes, this is a column I never, ever wanted to have to write, concerning the now hotly contested story of the decision by the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation to suspend funding for breast cancer screening to Planned Parenthood.(You’ll excuse me if this article refers to the group as “Komen” below, but the name is a bit much to type out.) But before I get to the various bees under my bonnet about the specifics of the case, I would open up with one meta-story complaint. In a vital electoral season when the nation seems to finally be ready to tackle serious issues of jobs, debt, deficit and entitlement reform, it is a source of despair that we shall apparently once again funnel the discussion back to abortion, one of the most divisive issues our nation has seen in its history and a subject on which virtually no combatant is likely to change their mind at this point. It simply rips up the turf further, peeling away the center of the country into one corner of the ring or the other, regardless of their worries about fiscal probity.
But, with that said… on to the subject at hand. This entire process makes me sad beyond the capacity of words to describe. In the smaller lens, the entire idea of extending the conservative war against Planned Parenthood to embroil an agency like Komen is enough to incite rage. The media maneuvering on all sides has already devolved the discussion into something more suited to a Super PAC ad. The foundation was quick like a bunny to release barely plausible mutterings about how none of this had anything to do with abortion, but rather with new rules regarding who would be eligible for grant money dedicated to screenings for breast cancer.
[T]he organization is trying to focus on “higher impact programs” and get rid of “duplicative” grants — and she says the “scurrilous accusations” about the change have been “profoundly hurtful to the organization.”
The reality, almost beyond a shadow of a doubt, is far more complex and distinctly political in nature. The Atlantic provides two different points of view incorporating direct interviews with some of the main players involved. One piece by Jeffrey Goldberg strongly suggests that the new rules put in place by Komen were a direct result of external pressure from pro-life groups, combined with internal moves by newly anointed VP Karen Handel, previously a gubernatorial candidate from Georgia and a staunch anti-abortion advocate.
But 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. (Komen gives out grants to roughly 2,000 organizations, and the new “no-investigations” rule applies to only one so far.) The decision to create a rule that would cut funding to Planned Parenthood, according to these sources, was driven by the organization’s new senior vice-president for public policy, Karen Handel, a former gubernatorial candidate from Georgia who is staunchly anti-abortion and who has said that since she is “pro-life, I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood.” (The Komen grants to Planned Parenthood did not pay for abortion or contraception services, only cancer detection, according to all parties involved.)
A companion piece from Megan McArdle suggests that, while it may have been political in nature, it was needed to ensure long term viability for Komen.
Goldberg clearly disapproves of the decision. Though I’m pro-choice, I don’t share the outrage that was roiling my Twitter feed this morning. It is, as Josh Barro noted, absurd to pretend that abortion is somehow incidental to Planned Parenthood’s services, and since money is fungible, giving them money is probably helping to fund abortion provision. Since I think this is a very tough issue on which reasonable people can disagree, I can see why the federal government, and private foundations, would decline to fund their operations.
Yes, money is fungible. We all know this. But those without blinders also know that abortions are actually not the majority of the work done by Planned Parenthood. In fact they are not anywhere near the 90% figure once quoted by Jon Kyle. (Disregarding his later politically charged pronunciations that the figures were not intended to be factual statements.) In fact, such procedures account for roughly 3% of the work performed. (EDIT: See below) And Komen, according to every source I can find, has never once spoken out or supported in any way abortion procedures. They raise funds which go to early cancer detection, and this is also something which PP provides at little to no cost to tens of thousands of women, along with other routine preventative health services. I’m only aware of this because of personal family and friend contacts who have made use of these services over the years and who have never had an abortion.
But even these facts submitted in evidence are not the key point of this admittedly lengthy diatribe. I understand the vast divide in our nation over abortion and the heated feelings it can provoke. And because of that, I can also comprehend the visceral hatred which many conservatives hold for Planned Parenthood and the wish for its destruction whether I agree with them or not. But not so for Komen.
The key point here comes back to a completely unrelated piece I penned just this week which dealt with the difference between “civilians” in our political and ideological wars and people such as George Soros and the Koch brothers. In it – in part – I wrote:
I’m also mindful of the fact that there are many people out there who have no interest in our game and are simply trying to get on with their lives. If you are, for example, the owner of a dry cleaning shop who happens to get caught up in a political story, it can turn out to be a disaster. Even if you happened to be involved in some business contract with somebody who once worked with a company in Iran, or if you offered a standard health plan which was inclusive of some services offered at Planned Parenthood, I would strenuously object to your suddenly being thrust into the political arena and having your life disrupted against your will. You weren’t part of our war and I have no interest in seeing you become collateral damage in one of our battles.
I now find it ironic that I invoked the name of Planned Parenthood in a piece crafted when I wasn’t even remotely considering the Komen case. But it certainly applies here. There are already pro-choice combatants lining up to call Komen cowards and demand that the faithful cease supporting them financially. (While working on this article, my wife – yes… a Democrat – described a mailing list of her friends calling to “send their pink **** back to Komen” over the story.) It is true, as Goldberg pointed out, that some conservative forces are suddenly calling for donations to the group to support their “brave” decision which may make up some of the funding in the short term, and some high profile opportunists like Michael Bloomberg are dumping cash into PP in exchange for a fast headline, but that doesn’t seem like a long term, balanced solution.
No matter what any of us think of the 3% of PP’s business which consists of providing abortions, there is always a balance to be struck when dealing with entities which do things we don’t like. In a vastly larger, but still related sense, we could list the various evils and shortcomings of Saudi Arabia. I don’t need to list them here. But we still seem to do business with them no matter whether there is a Republican or a Democrat in the White House. Perhaps there is a parallel lesson here to be studied.
My friend Ed Morrissey jumped into the fray early on, praising the efforts and lauding the work of of Live Action in trying to close the doors of Planned Parenthood. We can have that particular fight another day in terms of how systemic the problems at PP are and the best course of corrective action, but as I noted above, they have still provided non-abortion related services to many women in need. These include breast cancer screening at little or no cost, along with similar services. But they aren’t the only ones who work in this field and all of them rely on financial support from the public. Is it a “clean” service to throw the baby out with the bath water in each of these cases?
No, in the end, what we’ve managed to accomplish is precisely what I worried about in the column from earlier this week. We’ve taken a group which was singly and purely focused on preventing breast cancer – a malady which affects both “bad girls” and “good girls” alike – and dragged them into the political battlefield on a subject which they never sought to engage. The final result – no matter how you feel about abortion, Planned Parenthood, or any of the myriad soldiers involved – is that less money winds up going to fight a fully preventable disease afflicting women who cut across all political and ideological lines.
So for those who are doing an end zone dance this week over the decision made by Komen… I hope you’re proud of yourselves. I see no reason to celebrate.
EDIT: (Jazz) Thanks to the comments for this link which indicates that abortion services performed by PP are probably more on par with 10% than 3%, though still far less than 90.)