Race for the Consumer?

On Jan 31st, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation announced their decision to stop funding cancer testing and prevention at Planned Parenthood clinics. Komen is the largest breast cancer organization in the country, and funds research and advocacy as well as health services to fight breast cancer. Its pink ribbon has become a nearly ubiquitous sign of the organization’s successful marketing and awareness campaign.

Komen has funded Planned Parenthood for years, and funded over 100 thousand clinical breast exams through PP. Happily, the financial effects of Komen’s declaration on Planned Parenthood are shrinking every day, due to a spike in donations in protest of Komen’s decision. The most lasting consequence may in fact be the popular backlash that has shed light on Komen’s many vices and Planned Parenthood’s many virtues.

For one, Komen has unwittingly provided Planned Parenthood an opportunity to clarify the true scope of healthcare services they offer. Despite claims by conservative politicians, abortion constitutes only 3 percent of the services Planned Parenthood provides. The remaining 97 percent include sexually transmitted diseases testing, cancer screening, and a wide variety of other primary healthcare services essential to women’s health. Additionally, Planned Parenthood mostly serves low-income and uninsured women from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, exactly the population shown in public health research to have the lowest access to breast cancer screening programs.

In fact, Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer services are so vital that Komen’s Denver branch has announced that it is breaking from the national organization’s decision. Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains has singlehandedly detected nearly 20 percent of all cancers that have been found through use of Komen Denver funding.

Ironclad results like these reveal the self-destructive nature of Komen’s defunding decision. Massive popular backlash aside, Komen has, in an instant, crippled their own ability to provide cancer screenings to women in need.

This debacle is merely the latest public embarrassment for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, an organization rapidly becoming known for accepting any corporate partnership that will generate press or money, regardless of its compatibility with a mission of ending breast cancer.

Most memorably, Komen recently launched the “Buckets for the Cure” alliance with Kentucky Fried Chicken. While the campaign probably generated money for both Komen and KFC, it also represented a surrealist pairing of cancer awareness and cancer-causing fried food. Sadly, this embarrassment was not an anomaly, as the organization’s willful ignorance of science was made clear by their repeated refusal to recognize the link between Bisphenol A and cancer. This suspiciously mirrored the strategy of the public relations departments of Komen’s corporate funders, Coca-Cola and Koch Industries, both of whom sell products containing BPA. These campaigns ignore true risk factors for cancer and run the risk of having an adverse effect on many underprivileged women while focusing instead on brand, image, and profits.

Although Komen has funded many worthwhile and important breast cancer programs, it has failed to maintain its commitment to public health and instead fallen prey to corporate and political interests. Sadly, this situation is far from unique in the non-profit world today. Increasing corporate influence and commoditization has distorted both the values and the methods of many non-profits. That money is used, among other things, to pay exorbitant salaries for executives who are increasingly disconnected from the communities that they purportedly serve. On average, chief executive officers of large non-profits in the USA took home close to $300,000 per year.

Indeed, members of Komen’s leadership seem focused on an agenda unrelated to cancer prevention and treatment. For example, Karen C. Handel, Komen’s new Senior Vice President of Public Policy, has had her eyes set on defunding Planned Parenthood for years. As a gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, she made defunding Planned Parenthood part of her political platform. She is also on record speaking out against Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, and Transgender equality. If she continues to have influence at the highest leadership levels in this organization, it is harrowing to consider who else may be excluded from Komen’s breast cancer services in the future.

If Komen continues with irresponsible corporate partnerships and cuts essential programs over political disagreements, we must question whether this organization can be trusted to promote women's health. Its program of partnerships with corporations seems like a case of social conservatives and large corporations colluding to bend the non-profit sector to meet their own beliefs and line their pockets.

In contrast to Komen, Planned Parenthood has emerged from this debacle as a shining example of an organization providing basic women’s health care to the uninsured. Perhaps this distinction will allow donations to Planned Parenthood to increase while donations to Komen decrease. After all, pink spatulas can't actually screen for cancer. You know what can? Doctors at Planned Parenthood.

Samuel J. Bakkila ’11-’12 is a special concentrator in Social Inequality and Public Health in Eliot House.

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