Big Pink finally got too big for its britches. When the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation decided last week to end its breast-screening grants to Planned Parenthood, it unleashed a fierce firestorm of criticism aimed at an organization that has long basked in public praise. After three days of being slapped around by the American people, the media, and even some of its own state leaders, SGK was forced to reverse its decision, issuing an apology "to the American public for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women's lives."
Over the past 30 years, SGK became a fundraising behemoth by carefully cultivating an image of a bipartisan, above-the-fray "women's health first" outfit. That image — especially the "bipartisan" part — took a disastrous hit last week, and SGK's quick reversal was designed to counteract it. Meanwhile, within the first 24 hours of the controversy, Planned Parenthood received enough new donations to more than make up for SGK's cuts.
In North Carolina, the news set off fireworks on websites, blogs and talk shows — a sure sign that SGK had stepped in a pretty deep pile, considering that no N.C. Planned Parenthood affiliates were slated to receive grants from SGK this year. That's not to say they won't receive grants in the future. Patty Dillon, the N.C. field coordinator for Planned Parenthood Health Systems in Raleigh, explained that "even though we won't be explicitly affected by their latest decision, in 2009 we received grant money from them that allowed us to assist over 700 women in receiving breast-cancer screening." Dillon also said N.C. PP affiliates "have seen an uptick in donations" since the onset of the controversy.
SGK-Charlotte's acting administrative director Mary Boyd said the local Komen group had "received both negative and positive reactions. All comments we've received are being sent on to Komen headquarters, and we take very seriously whatever people are saying, whether it's positive or negative." Boyd also emphasized that, despite the controversy, her group still has "16 grantees in our nine-county service area that provide mammogram screening services for underserved women."
Planned Parenthood's Dillon emphasized that her group's disappointment with SGK's decision stemmed from the belief "that politics should never get in the way of women's health care; we believe the real victims in this situation are the thousands of women all over the country that we provide health care for. Primarily these women are in underserved rural communities around the country, and they rely on us. In many cases PP is the only place they can consistently receive this care."
For a long time, SGK seemed unassailable, a pure do-gooder organization that enjoyed both corporate sponsors and grassroots support, while its omnipresent pink ribbons were displayed on everything from clothing and purses to watches and water bottles.
A few reports belying Komen's saintly PR image have popped up, garnering a little publicity: the group quashed "competing" local breast-cancer groups, lobbied to weaken the federal health-care law, and sued groups using the word "cure" in their names. Other critics have lambasted SGK for supporting some corporate donors by denying that environmental toxins play a role in breast cancer. Until last week, the only critics that seemed to matter to SGK, however, were the ultra-conservative anti-abortion groups, many of which have pitched a fit ever since Komen began its partnerships with Planned Parenthood in 2005. In December, the Southern Baptist organization recalled pink Bibles it had sold because some of the money was being sent to Planned Parenthood.
The Komen organization, and its founder Nancy Brinker, denied that politics played a part in the funding cutoff — a denial that, at the very least, qualifies for Most Transparent Lie of the Year. When it first announced the funding cuts, SGK said it was because of a new policy that forbids giving grants to any organization under investigation. Never mind that the congressional investigation of Planned Parenthood, led by Florida Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns, stems from intense pressure by far-right anti-abortion groups. And never mind that SGK's recent hire for Senior VP of public policy is Karen Handel, a far-right, virulently (and publicly) anti-PP advocate, and a former candidate for governor of Georgia who was endorsed by Sarah Palin. Nope, nothing political going on there.
The Komen organization does a lot of good in the world, notwithstanding its compromises with corporate interests and the glut of pink everything. If it wants to win back its many progressive supporters who were appalled last week, the organization needs to be more serious about living up to its bipartisan image.