Commentary Politics

The Cancerous Politics and Ideology of the Susan G. Komen Foundation

Jodi Jacobson

This week it became clear there are things more important to the Susan G. Komen Foundation--the fundraising giant that each year during breast cancer awareness month virtually swathes the United States in pink, a la Christo--than ensuring women are able to access exams for early detection of breast cancer.  In a word: Politics.

See all our coverage of the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s break with Planned Parenthood here.

This week it became clear there are things more important to the Susan G. Komen Foundation—the fundraising giant that each year during breast cancer awareness month virtually swathes the United States in pink, a la Christo—than ensuring women are able to access exams for early detection of breast cancer.

What could be more important to an organization ostensibly dedicated to the elimination of breast cancer? Answer: The politics and personal agendas of the organization’s senior staff and board, both of which have been infiltrated by right-wing ideologues and both of which were instrumental in a decision to deny further support from Komen affiliates to Planned Parenthood clinics that provide breast exams. In fact, it is now clear that some anti-choicers on Komen’s board and senior staff are actually willing to sacrifice poor women to breast cancer to satisfy their own agendas.

Nationwide, Planned Parenthood doctors and nurses provide nearly 750,000 breast cancer screenings annually, offering risk assessments, breast exams, breast health information and education, and diagnostic and surgical referrals. Over the past five years, Planned Parenthood health centers have conducted nearly 170,000 clinical breast exams with funds from Komen, out of a total of more than four million clinical breast exams performed nationwide by Planned Parenthood clinics. Komen grants also supported more than 6,400 out of 70,000 mammogram referrals made by Planned Parenthood. These are affiliate-to-affiliate grants between Komen and Planned Parenthood sister oganizations at the state level.

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A large share of the clients served at Planned Parenthood clinics are low-income African-American and Latina women. The National Cancer Institute identifies lack of access to early and effective screening for breast cancer (and hence lack of early treatment) as a primary reason that African-American and Latina women die of breast cancer at higher rates than the general population. In fact, Komen itself recognized these links in a 2011 statement lauding its relationship with Planned Parenthood:

While Komen Affiliates provide funds to pay for screening, education and treatment programs in dozens of communities, in some areas, the only place that poor, uninsured or under-insured women can receive these services are through programs run by Planned Parenthood.

Komen further stated:

These facilities serve rural women, poor women, Native American women, women of color, and the un- and under-insured. As part of our financial arrangements, we monitor our grantees twice a year to be sure they are spending the money in line with our agreements, and we are assured that Planned Parenthood uses these funds only for breast health education, screening and treatment programs.

As long as there is a need for health care for these women, Komen Affiliates will continue to fund the facilities that meet that need.

But apparently those women no longer matter as Komen’s support has now been withdrawn. Last month, the national office of the Komen Foundation, which maintains tight control over its state affiliates, sent a memo barring those affiliates from using money they had raised at the local level to partner with Planned Parenthood clinics in improving access to breast exams.

Why? Not science, not evidence, not concern for women.

Politics and personal ambition, pure and simple.

It’s no secret that anti-choice legislators at the state and national level have made Planned Parenthood the central focus of their anti-woman agenda, spending well over half of entire legislative sessions in some states focused on cutting funding and limiting access to reproductive health services.  At the national level, the ongoing witch hunt aimed at PPFA has taken many forms, one of which includes a “Congressional inquiry” launched by House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Chairman Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.).  Stearns sent a letter to PPFA in late September 2011 asking for an avalanche of documents to “investigate” whether PPFA has used federal funds to provide abortion services.

In a letter protesting the move, Democrats Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Diana DeGette (D-CO) called the inquiry a politically-motivated waste of time and taxpayer money, stating:

“Planned Parenthood is being singled out as part of a Republican vendetta against an organization that provides family planning and other medical care to low-income women and men. … The HHS Inspector General and state Medicaid programs regularly audit Planned Parenthood … These audits have not identified any pattern of misuse of federal funds, illegal activity, or other abuse that would justify a broad and invasive congressional investigation.

Wasteful or not, any Congressperson can start such an inquiry, even for specious reasons. This is not equivalent to a legal “investigation” of an organization. What Stearns is doing is completely unfounded and politically motivated, but when you have power you can abuse it.

What does Stearns have to do with Komen? Anti-choice groups have long targeted Komen for its partnership with Planned Parenthood, in part by haranguing the organization and listing them as targets of various protests and boycotts, and in part by touting the medically-disproven and specious claims about non-existent links between abortion and breast cancer. A group known as Life Decisions International (LDI), the website of which is “fightpp.org,” has long had Komen on its boycott list.

These efforts hardly appear to have affected Komen’s bottom line since the foundation’s total gross revenue in 2010 was nearly $421 million, only several hundred thousand dollars of which were granted over the past five years by Komen’s state affiliates to local Planned Parenthood partners for education, screening, and referrals.  Moreover, as a large and well-known organization (albeit one criticized for its work on many levels) Komen appeared until now to stay above the ideological mud-pit of the anti-choice movement.

Last fall, however, things began to change. LDI began quiety telling other anti-choice groups that it had “won” the battle with Komen and that they should await public announcement of a policy change.

And suddenly, Cliff Stearns’ inquiry became a reason for the Komen national office to change what state affiliates could do with their funds. Komen’s board recently approved a new policy stating that affliates can only provide grant funds to other organizations if:

• The applicant is not currently debarred from the receipt of federal or state funding.

• No key personnel of applicant or any of its affiliates has been convicted of fraud or a crime involving any other financial or administrative impropriety within the last year.

• The applicant or any of its affiliates is not currently under a local, state or federal formal investigation for financial or administrative impropriety or fraud. (“Affiliate” means any entities that control, are controlled by, or are under the same control as applicant or independent entities operating under the same name or brand as applicant.)

While the policy ostensibly affects “any” organization to which Komen affiliates might grant money, the memo sent to state affiliates specifically targets Planned Parenthood.

“Currently, however, various authorities at both the state and federal levels are conducting investigations involving [Planned Parenthood] and some of its local chapters, and the organization is barred from receiving government funding in numerous states. Under these new criteria, Planned Parenthood will be ineligible to receive new funding from Komen until these investigations are complete and these issues are resolved.”

But these are lies and innuendo: There are no “authorities” investigating Planned Parenthood and Planned Parenthood is not barred from receiving federal government funding in any state.  No mature organization concerned about the health and well-being of women at risk of breast cancer would have created a policy targeting another respected organization with a record of saving untold lives.

But Komen can no longer claim the mantle of a respected organization. First, Komen last year hired Karen Handel, a former Georgia anti-choice gubernatorial candidate and Sarah Palin acolyte who promised as part of her platform to defund Planned Parenthood and other vital health services.  Handel, who lost her race but is said to have future political ambitions, is now Senior Vice President for Policy at Komen. She was originally endorsed in her race by and received money from current GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney, with whom some sources suggest she remains closely allied. Romney, in turn, has suddently become more anti-choice than thou and has promised a federal personhood amendment as well as to defund Planned Parenthood.

Second, sitting on Komen’s Advocacy Alliance Board is Jane Abraham, the General Chairman of the virulently anti-choice and anti-science Susan B. Anthony List and of its Political Action Committee.  Among other involvements, Abraham helps direct the Nuturing Network, a global network of crisis pregnancy centers, organizations widely  known for spreading ideology, misinformation and lies to women facing unintended pregnancy and to use both intimidation and coercion in the course of doing so.  Also on the board of Nuturing Network is Maureen Scalia, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, no hero to women’s rights and health.

That Komen—an organization ostensibly dedicated to scientific exploration of cures for breast cancer—has invited on its advocacy board women so closely allied with organizations that so blatantly ignore science and medicine and spread outright lies to other women about their health and welfare speaks volumes about Komen’s ethical principles as an organization.

While anti-choicers including those on Komen’s board are spreading lies, Komen’s steps will ensure that more women who might have been screened will now lack access to early detection and treatment and may die from breast cancer. This is in keeping with a general and patently insane approach of the anti-choice movement: Decry abortion, for example, but limit funding for contraceptive education and supplies which can prevent the unintended pregnancies that lead to abortion. Decry the plight of minority women, but make their access to care increasingly limited. Cry for the “babies,” but defund pre- and post-natal care, nutritional support, and other forms of life and health care for infants and mothers.  It is a venal and disgusting strategy that until now I would have thought well beneath the Komen Foundation no matter other issues.

But Komen as an organization now appears so little able to stand the truth that it is deleting comments from its website protesting the policy change. And this is not the first time Komen has come under fire for misinformation or questionable affiliations. Some point to concerns about Komen’s influence on a recent Institute of Medicine report playing down environmental factors in breast cancer, and its close affiliation with many companies that manufacture products using cancer-causing agents.

Given these and other links, it may be no surprise that Komen’s own memo to its affiliates spreads lies about Planned Parenthood, nor that Komen’s actions belie its own claims to care about racial, ethnic and income disparities in access to breast cancer screenings.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control on disparities in access to care noted that women without insurance (38.2 percent) and women without a usual source of health care (36.2 percent) were least likely to be screened for cancer and that such disparities remained stark among Latina, African-American, and Native American women.

In response, Ambassador Nancy G. Brinker, founder and CEO of Komen, said: “This gap in care for uninsured and low-income women is particularly troubling and one we have been working very hard to fill at Susan G. Komen. It’s clear that we have far more work to do for women who have no resources, no insurance, and no steady source of healthcare. They need our help the most.”

Not sure how she explains the foundation’s recent decision to those women who otherwise would have gotten that screening along with other health care at Planned Parenthood clinics.

News Abortion

Texas Pro-Choice Advocates Push Back Against State’s Anti-Choice Pamphlet

Teddy Wilson

The “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, published by the state, has not been updated since 2003. The pamphlet includes the medically dubious link between abortion care and breast cancer, among other medical inaccuracies common in anti-choice literature.

Reproductive rights advocates are calling for changes to information forced on pregnant people seeking abortion services, thanks to a Texas mandate.

Texas lawmakers passed the Texas Woman’s Right to Know Act in 2003, which requires abortion providers to inform pregnant people of the medical risks associated with abortion care, as well as the probable gestational age of the fetus and the medical risks of carrying a pregnancy to term.

The “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, published by the state, has not been updated or revised since it was first made public in 2003. The pamphlet includes the medically dubious link between abortion care and breast cancer, among other medical inaccuracies common in anti-choice literature. 

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) in June published a revised draft version of the pamphlet. The draft version of “A Woman’s Right to Know” was published online, and proposed revisions are available for public comment until Friday.

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John Seago, spokesperson for the anti-choice Texas Right to Life, told KUT that the pamphlet was created so pregnant people have accurate information before they consent to receiving abortion care.

“This is a booklet that’s not going to be put in the hands of experts, it’s not going to be put in the hands of OB-GYNs or scientists–it’s going to be put in the hands of women who will range in education, will range in background, and we want this booklet to be user-friendly enough that anyone can read this booklet and be informed,” he said.

Reproductive rights advocates charge that the information in the pamphlet presented an anti-abortion bias and includes factually incorrect information.

More than 34 percent of the information found in the previous version of the state’s “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet was medically inaccurate, according to a study by a Rutgers University research team.

State lawmakers and activists held a press conference Wednesday outside the DSHS offices in Austin and delivered nearly 5,000 Texans’ comments to the agency.  

Kryston Skinner, an organizer with the Texas Equal Access Fund, spoke during the press conference about her experience having an abortion in Texas, and how the state-mandated pamphlet made her feel stigmatized.

Skinner told Rewire that the pamphlet “causes fear” in pregnant people who are unaware that the pamphlet is rife with misinformation. “It’s obviously a deterrent,” Skinner said. “There is no other reason for the state to force a medical professional to provide misinformation to their patients.”

State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) said in a statement that the pamphlet is the “latest shameful example” of Texas lawmakers playing politics with reproductive health care. “As a former registered nurse, I find it outrageous that the state requires health professionals to provide misleading and coercive information to patients,” Howard said.

Howard, vice chair of the Texas House Women’s Health Caucus, vowed to propose legislation that would rid the booklet of its many inaccuracies if DSHS fails to take the thousands of comments into account, according to the Austin Chronicle

Lawmakers in several states have passed laws mandating that states provide written materials to pregnant people seeking abortion services. These so-called informed consent laws often require that the material include inaccurate or misleading information pushed by legislators and organizations that oppose legal abortion care. 

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) sent a letter to DSHS that said the organization has “significant concerns with some of the material and how it is presented.”

Among the most controversial statements made in the pamphlet is the claim that “doctors and scientists are actively studying the complex biology of breast cancer to understand whether abortion may affect the risk of breast cancer.”

Texas Right to Life said in a statement that the organization wants the DSHS include “stronger language” about the supposed correlation between abortion and breast cancer. The organization wants the pamphlet to explicitly cite “the numerous studies that indicate undergoing an elective abortion contributes to the incidence of breast cancer in women.”

Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place) said in a statement that the state should provide the “most accurate science available” to pregnant people seeking an abortion. “As a breast cancer survivor, I am disappointed that DSHS has published revisions to the ‘A Woman’s Right to Know’ booklet that remain scientifically and medically inaccurate,” Davis said.

The link between abortion and cancer has been repeatedly debunked by scientific research.

“Scientific research studies have not found a cause-and-effect relationship between abortion and breast cancer,” according to the American Cancer Society.

A report by the National Cancer Institute explains, “having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.”

DSHS spokesperson Carrie Williams told the Texas Tribune that the original booklet was written by a group of agency officials, legislators and public health and medical professionals.

“We carefully considered medical and scientific information when updating the draft booklet,” Williams said.

News Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats: ‘Open the Big Tent’ for Us

Christine Grimaldi & Ally Boguhn

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Democrats for Life of America gathered Wednesday in Philadelphia during the party’s convention to honor Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for his anti-choice viewpoints, and to strategize ways to incorporate their policies into the party.

The group attributed Democratic losses at the state and federal level to the party’s increasing embrace of pro-choice politics. The best way for Democrats to reclaim seats in state houses, governors’ offices, and the U.S. Congress, they charged, is to “open the big tent” to candidates who oppose legal abortion care.

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

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Democrats for Life of America members repeatedly attempted to distance themselves from Republicans, reiterating their support for policies such as Medicaid expansion and paid maternity leave, which they believe could convince people to carry their pregnancies to term.

Their strategy, however, could have been lifted directly from conservatives’ anti-choice playbook.

The group relies, in part, on data from Marist, a group associated with anti-choice polling, to suggest that many in the party side with them on abortion rights. Executive Director Kristen Day could not explain to Rewire why the group supports a 20-week abortion ban, while Janet Robert, president of the group’s board of directors, trotted out scientifically false claims about fetal pain

Day told Rewire that she is working with pro-choice Democrats, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, both from New York, on paid maternity leave. Day said she met with DeLauro the day before the group’s event.

Day identifies with Democrats despite a platform that for the first time embraces the repeal of restrictions for federal funding of abortion care. 

“Those are my people,” she said.

Day claimed to have been “kicked out of the pro-life movement” for supporting the Affordable Care Act. She said Democrats for Life of America is “not opposed to contraception,” though the group filed an amicus brief in U.S. Supreme Court cases on contraception. 

Democrats for Life of America says it has important allies in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Sens. Joe Donnelly (IN), Joe Manchin (WV), and Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL), along with former Rep. Bart Stupak (MI), serve on the group’s board of advisors, according to literature distributed at the convention.

Another alleged ally, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), came up during Edwards’ speech. Edwards said he had discussed the award, named for Casey’s father, former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, the defendant in the landmark Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which opened up a flood of state-level abortions restrictions as long as those anti-choice policies did not represent an “undue burden.”

“Last night I happened to have the opportunity to speak to Sen. Bob Casey, and I told him … I was in Philadelphia, receiving this award today named after his father,” Edwards said.

The Louisiana governor added that though it may not seem it, there are many more anti-choice Democrats like the two of them who aren’t comfortable coming forward about their views.

“I’m telling you there are many more people out there like us than you might imagine,” Edwards said. “But sometimes it’s easier for those folks who feel like we do on these issues to remain silent because they’re not going to  be questioned, and they’re not going to be receiving any criticism.”

During his speech, Edwards touted the way he has put his views as an anti-choice Democrat into practice in his home state. “I am a proud Democrat, and I am also very proudly pro-life,” Edwards told the small gathering.

Citing his support for Medicaid expansion in Louisiana—which went into effect July 1—Edwards claimed he had run on an otherwise “progressive” platform except for when it came to abortion rights, adding that his policies demonstrate that “there is a difference between being anti-abortion and being pro-life.”

Edwards later made clear that he was disappointed with news that Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock, whose organization works to elect pro-choice women to office, was being considered to fill the position of party chair in light of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation.

“It wouldn’t” help elect anti-choice politicians to office, said Edwards when asked about it by a reporter. “I don’t want to be overly critical, I don’t know the person, I just know that the signal that would send to the country—and to Democrats such as myself—would just be another step in the opposite direction of being a big tent party [on abortion].” 

Edwards made no secret of his anti-choice viewpoints during his run for governor in 2015. While on the campaign trail, he released a 30-second ad highlighting his wife’s decision not to terminate her pregnancy after a doctor told the couple their daughter would have spina bifida.

He received a 100 percent rating from anti-choice organization Louisiana Right to Life while running for governor, based off a scorecard asking him questions such as, “Do you support the reversal of Roe v. Wade?”

Though the Democratic Party platform and nominee have voiced the party’s support for abortion rights, Edwards has forged ahead with signing numerous pieces of anti-choice legislation into law, including a ban on the commonly used dilation and evacuation (D and E) procedure, and an extension of the state’s abortion care waiting period from 24 hours to 72 hours.