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Nonprofit Leaders: Beware!

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Recently I wrote a piece for this website stressing the importance of political activism in the war on breast cancer and specifically highlighting Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-OK) role in single-handedly blocking the crucial Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Act (BCERA) from reaching the Senate floor. I questioned his inconsistent policies. I pointed out that if he felt so strongly about the bill, the proper course of action would be to vote against it, not to derail the democratic process as he has done. I said that with 3 million women in the US living with breast cancer, with more than 40,000 women dying of the disease and more than 270,000 diagnosed this year alone, we are not "already spending enough money on breast cancer" as his staff has suggested. I explained that this bill was the result of years of research, analysis, discussion and compromise with policymakers, scientists and the public. His response, sadly, was to use his Senate website for a personal attack on me.

Sen. Coburn's tirade was a complete misrepresentation of the facts. More disturbingly, his effort to draw attention away from the substance of the bill by "accusing" me of being a Democrat and therefore unable to represent the best interests of my organization, acts as a very clear warning to heads of nonprofit organizations in this country: your privately held political beliefs make you unfit to head a nonpartisan organization, and they will be used against you.

My goal, my purpose in life, is to serve the interests of breast cancer survivors and all those at risk of the disease, and the National Breast Cancer Coalition's membership is as diverse as America. It is a coalition of hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals from every region of the country, every walk of life, every political persuasion.

I am proud to serve a nonpartisan nonprofit grassroots organization that works with members from both sides of the aisle. When someone applies for membership in the National Breast Cancer Coalition, I do not ask them who they voted for in the last election or who they have given money to. I do not question whether the work I do will benefit members of one party or another. I serve in the interest of all women and their families. It is a shame Sen. Coburn does not take a similar view in his role as a United States Senator.

In his website attack, Sen. Coburn obscured the facts behind innuendo and a fog of misinformation. My personal political beliefs and financial contributions have nothing to do with this bill. The reality is this: This bill is supported by 66 United States Senators, including 29 Republicans. This bill is supported by hundreds of breast cancer groups and other organizations across the country, of every political viewpoint and diverse perspective. He is holding up a bill that could uncover what causes breast cancer. He doesn't have to agree with us, he doesn't have to change a single belief or position on the substance of the bill. He certainly does not have to agree with my personal political actions. What he has to do is lift his hold so that the democratic process can take its course.

Sen. Coburn tried to explain his behavior by expressing his belief that Congress should not be directing the NIH how or where to spend its money. He is perfectly free to raise this point in debate on the Senate floor. Of course, he has on at least two occasions supported legislation doing that very thing, bills for autism research and research into premature births. And he didn't hesitate to tell the Center for Disease Control how to label condoms when he was a member of the House.

Sen. Coburn did get one thing right. Almost. He said I have a "personal partisan political agenda." Though it's not partisan, as a 19-year breast cancer survivor I do have a very real personal agenda. The eradication of breast cancer. Right now, Sen. Coburn is standing in the way.

Fran Visco
National Breast Cancer Coalition

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