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Lisa Belkin Headshot

What Would 'Suzy' G. Komen Think?

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The headlines all used her name.

"Susan G. Komen's reckless choice on Planned Parenthood shatters Unity," said the Star-Ledger.

"Susan G. Komen defends cutoff..." said the Washington Times.

"Why Did Susan G. Komen Pull the Plug on Planned Parenthood?" was the Atlantic's version.

"Was Susan G. Komen misunderstood?' asked the Christian Science Monitor.

Even this morning's announcement that the charity had changed its mind sounded personal. "Komen Reverses Planned Parenthood Funding Decision," one Fox news site said.

But of course the actual Susan Goodman Komen, the woman in whose name this fight is being waged, said none of these things. Komen died of breast cancer in 1980, at the age of 36, and her sister, Nancy G. Brinker, built the foundation in order to keep a promise to the woman she called Suzy that she would do everything she could to find a cure for the insidious disease.

For awhile, she did. I first met Brinker in 1996, when I wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine about how she almost single-handedly put breast cancer on the fund-rasing map. I was struck then by how she spoke about her sister -- not only how frequently, but how lovingly. Just a name to most, Suzy was still a very tangible presence to Brinker. This was one sister who took her vow seriously.

Over the years since then, however, those who live the fight against breast cancer have watched as the organization became more political than personal. Its mission, which had been to honor Susan by beating this disease, became elbowing for recognition as the most influential player in the breast cancer game.

Insiders have told me that if a researcher took funding from an organization like the Lauder Breast Cancer Research Foundation they would risk losing funding from Komen because of a perceived competition.

My colleague Laura Bassett has reported about how Komen spends money and energy "patrolling the waters for other charities and events around the country that use any variation of "for the cure" in their names," and suing them. (The group also appears to be litigious over the use of the color pink.)

And in October, Mother Jones accused Komen of refusing to acknowledge a link between BPA and breast cancer because some of its major funders produce products that use BPA.

The decision by the Komen board to withdraw its funding for Planned Parenthood -- a decision that appears to have been influenced by right wing disapproval and pressure -- is the most dramatic, and certainly the most controversial, step in a road that seems to have been leading away from the founding intent for quite awhile now. Watching the implosion of the Komen brand over the past few days I wondered "What Would Suzy Think?" And reading the headlines I hoped that Brinker was reading them too, and thinking that maybe it is time to go beyond just reversing one specific decision, but, more broadly, to remember the original promise she made to her sister and to get back to curing cancer.