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Mara Leventhal Headshot

When One Women's Health Advocate Is Pitted Against Another, No One Wins

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It was an epic PR fight, a fast and fierce PR battle fought by two of the most nationally recognized forces of women's health advocacy: Planned Parenthood and Susan G. Komen for the Cure. It played out over cable news airwaves and social media updates like Clash of the Titans: Goddess Edition. A seemingly small administrative change by the Komen Foundation, not to give grants to any organization under Congressional investigation, started it all. The change would have, if not reversed today, led to an end to a breast cancer screening program run by Planned Parenthood.  

While it only lasted a couple of cable news cycles, this rapid-fire progression of statements, counter-statements, letters from Congress, major donation announcements and board resignations was a down-and-dirty fight for the title of "True Advocate for Women's Health." How far would the outrage over defunding this breast cancer-screening program go? The winner, at least in this round, is Planned Parenthood. Halfway down in a lengthy statement released today, Susan G. Komen Board of Directors and Founder and CEO Nancy G. Brinker says:

It is our hope and we believe it is time for everyone involved to pause, slow down and reflect on how grants can most effectively and directly be administered without controversies that hurt the cause of women. We urge everyone who has participated in this conversation across the country over the last few days to help us move past this issue.  We do not want our mission marred or affected by politics -- anyone's politics.

Yes. Let's slow down a bit. Let's set aside the reporting this week of Brinker's strong political connections to Republican politics, longtime objections to pursuing scientific evidence that some toxins may contribute to cancer and lawsuits against small non-profits using the words, "for a cure."



I, like so many women, have a personal connection to both organizations. I can't remember a time when I didn't have a relationship with them. Both causes have been a part of my life since I was a little girl. I remember being a Komen volunteer, stuffing gift bags for a Race for the Cure. I remember thinking about my mother's mother, who died of breast cancer at age 63 when I was nine, every time I saw a pink ribbon. I remember seeing Planned Parenthood donation envelopes on our kitchen counter. I remember the Halloween when a neighbor put an anti-choice bumper sticker in my basket, along with some candy, initiating a talk with my mom about abortion rights and the importance of protecting our right to make our own health decisions. I remember looking up Planned Parenthood's phone number, just after moving to Miami, when I realized I was overdue for my annual cervical cancer check. I hadn't figured out where to get my hair cut yet, let alone where to get a Pap smear. I called Planned Parenthood, because I knew I would get affordable, women-focused care. Though my relationship with Planned Parenthood has strengthened over the years, my feelings about Komen's programs became conflicted.



While I still made donations when friends asked me to support their annual Komen walk, I started to distrust the tone of the cover-everything-with-pink-ribbons message. As a woman with a family history of breast cancer, yes, cures, but also prevention. Maybe it was the annual ritual of NFL players decked out in pink gloves and sweatbands that started to bother me. Or the Komen/Bank of America banner ad that was popping up on my computer screen for a Breast Cancer Awareness credit card. Or the pink ribbons covering everything from yogurt to guns. I understand that non-profits must be creative in fundraising, but the Pepto-Bismol colored marketing awareness was too much, and had lost its appeal to me.



That said, I was still surprised when I heard that Komen decided to break their ties with Planned Parenthood. I wasn't surprised that the news elicited such a strong, powerful reaction from the public. But it made me think. When was the last time so many politicians and activists joined together so swiftly to organize against a cut to a women's health program? Planned Parenthood, which provides many types of health screenings, has been under attack for years, but I had never noticed this level of support. 



Perhaps some of us, especially younger women, are desensitized to the attacks on women's health and women's health rights. Women's health issues have always been "wedge" issues to us: highly emotional, politicized tools. We watched former President George W. Bush sign that so-called Partial Birth Abortion Act of 2003 surrounded by smiling men in suits. No women in sight. We listen to national and local politicians talking about the importance and value of life, while our happily married friends in their mid-30's delay trying to get pregnant another year, because they don't have health insurance. We shake our heads when we read about a Catholic School teacher in Wisconsin who was fired for breaking Catholic doctrine because she and her husband used in vitro fertilization technology to give birth to her beautiful twins. The ultrasound bills, like the one just passed in Virginia, and the "personhood" amendments are standard entries each legislative cycle. But many of us don't take any action about it. It is challenging to generate outrage when politicians use women's bodies as a political tool. To paraphrase the journalism adage, when a dog bites a man, that's not news. But if a man bites a dog, you've got a headline. It took a trusted women's organization to attack Planned Parenthood to get our collective attention. The Komen Foundation, despite its many flaws, does some excellent work. It will take years for the organization to recover from this week's fallout. If politics make strange bedfellows, this week, they made strange enemies. When one advocate for women's health attacks another, none of us win.


We all know that the Komen Foundation isn't the first group to attack Planned Parenthood's funding.  In fact, women's health in general has been chomped, kicked and sliced in recent years. It is time for all of us -- especially my generation of women in the 20s and 30s -- to continue to push for advances in women's health and our rights to make our own health choices, even when the attackers are the usual suspects.

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