Commentary Religion

An Unethical Alliance? Catholic Bishops Behind Susan G. Komen Foundation Fiasco

Jodi Jacobson

A Reuters article now provides proof of what I have suspected for some time: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was involved in the whole Komen fiasco, on one hand forcing boycotts of Komen until it dropped Planned Parenthood and on the other taking millions of dollars in money from Komen.

On February 8th, during the height of the controversy that erupted when the Susan G. Komen Foundation suddenly decided to cut ties to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, I was listening to the Diane Rehm Show on “Religious Liberty, Politics and Women’s Health Care.”  Among the guests was Anthony Picarello, General Counsel of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

Though I listened carefully to the entire program, my ears perked up particularly when Picarello made a comment on breast cancer in response to a question raised by Rehm about the Komen-PPFA fiasco to all three guests on the show:

Basically, what’s happened is the health care reform law provides for preventive services. That includes preventive services for women. The idea is to get out ahead of diseases with prevention, things like mammograms.

Picarello was doing two things here. One was to continue the Bishops false and medically- inaccurate claim that contraceptive care is not “preventive health care.” The other was to claim that mammograms are a breast cancer prevention strategy. They are not. In fact they are no more a prevention strategy than an x-ray is a prevention strategy for a broken bone. They are a diagnostic tool. Having a mammogram won’t prevent any breast cancer; it can however detect it.

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But the reason that this comment caught my attention was that this was the exact argument Komen was making about its decision on Planned Parenthood… because it wanted to go back to focusing on “mammograms.”  I wrote about the false mammogram excuse here.

In the anti-choice world, nothing is unrelated and no action not carefully planned. I immediately thought to myself… “the Bishops are involved in the Komen decision.”  The hiring of Karen Handel, an extreme right-winger, the sudden cut off by Komen of a long-time ally long-praised by the Foundation itself… it made sense to me that something bigger was behind all of it.  And the thought arose again when during the now infamous Darrell Issa hearing on religious liberty women’s health, the male religious right witnesses returned to the mammogram theme in talking about the kinds of health care they felt it would be appropriate to offer women (cause, you know, we are reduced to our breasts). Once again, I thought… there is something going on.

Well now, there is proof of the complicity of the USCCB in the whole Komen fiasco. An article in Reuters today provides documentation of the fact that the Catholic Hospital system is a recipient of large sums of money from Komen, and that while at the same time Catholic Hospitals were and are receiving these grants, the USCCB has been integrally involved in an anti-choice effort to boycott and stop people from contributing to Komen unless and until it cut off Planned Parenthood.

Like I said, nothing with anti-choicers is a coincidence.

David Morgan, a reporter with Reuters News Service who investigated links between the Bishops and Komen, writes:

Internal Komen documents reviewed by Reuters reveal the complicated relationship between the Komen Foundation and the Catholic church, which simultaneously contributes to the breast cancer charity and receives grants from it. In recent years, Komen has allocated at least $17.6 million of the donations it receives to U.S. Catholic universities, hospitals and charities.

While it was getting contributions, USCCB was using Komen as a proxy in its ground war against Planned Parenthood. Morgan writes:

Church opposition reached dramatic new proportions in 2011, when the 11 bishops who represent Ohio’s 2.6 million Catholics announced a statewide policy banning church and parochial school donations to Komen.

Such pressure, writes Morgan, “helped sway Komen’s leadership to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, according to current and former Komen officials. The decision, made public in January, and Komen’s reversal only days later, sparked an angry outcry from both sides of an intensifying American debate over abortion.”

Morgan goes on to document the history of the institutional church’s involvement in taking money from Komen while trying to influence it politically.

The earliest signs of discord came in 2005, when South Carolina’s Catholic diocese pulled out of the local Komen fundraiser. It was followed over the next four years by individual dioceses in Arizona, Indiana, Florida, Missouri and other states, where bishops either spoke out against Komen or took steps to stem donations to the charity, mainly because of its Planned Parenthood link.

The momentum picked up in 2011 when top Ohio clerics met in Columbus. High on their agenda was the question of whether the state’s nine dioceses should participate in Komen fundraisers.

No Planned Parenthood clinics in Ohio receive Komen money. But the bishops decided that diocese funds should no longer benefit the charity, for fear that money sent from local Komen affiliates to the Dallas headquarters could wind up in Planned Parenthood’s coffers or help fund research on stem cells collected from human fetuses, according to church officials.

The Ohio bishops would soon be joined by the North Dakota Catholic Conference, which cautioned its nearly 190,000 parishioners against donating to Komen. The charity’s officials in California also say they received their first request in two decades to meet with Catholic bishops, who expressed concern about Planned Parenthood but took no action.

The Ohio and North Dakota pronouncements nearly doubled the number of dioceses that have questioned Komen’s support for Planned Parenthood or severed financial ties with the charity, bringing the total to at least 23 of the 195 Catholic dioceses in the United States.

Morgan goes on to describe “a larger conservative shift within the American church since New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan became chairman of the Conference in November 2010.”

Under Dolan’s leadership, the conference last year set up a new ad hoc committee on religious liberty to oppose government policies that conflict with church teachings on abortion, contraception and gay marriage.

That move coincided with the rise of social conservatives in Congress and state legislatures during the 2010 elections and has gathered pace during the 2012 presidential campaign.

“It’s an ideal time for them to push both Democrats and Republicans to acquiesce to their demands, because nobody wants to be seen as disrespecting religion,” said Jon O’Brien of the advocacy group, Catholics for Choice, which opposes the Vatican on matters related to sex, marriage and family life.

And then, as Morgan writes, there is “the dilemma.” While blasting Komen for giving money to Planned Parenthood affiliates reaching low-income with few or not alternatives, the Church and its affiliates continued to take large sums of money from Komen. 

Morgan reports:

In Ohio, tens of thousands of dollars in Komen grants have gone to some of the same institutions that bishops there proposed as funding alternatives to Komen.

Georgetown University in Washington has received $15 million in Komen grants. Catholic institutions overall collected $7.4 million from the charity in 2011 alone, while Planned Parenthood’s receipts totaled $684,000 during the same year.

“Some outside observers say the money also raises ethical questions about the bishops’ opposition role,” Morgan writes.

“It is morally inconsistent, and difficult to explain, why you would condemn donations but continue to accept grants. It makes no ethical sense at all,” said Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics.

Some parishioners agree.

“It is blatantly hypocritical,” said Al Mancuso, a 42-year-old Cleveland resident who regularly attends church and volunteers at church functions but opposes the Ohio bishops’ stance on Komen and Planned Parenthood.

Michele Allen, a 40-year-old mother of two from Lyndhurst, Ohio, said: “This happens every election cycle. The church is a little too politicized. This association with the Republicans and all these pro-life issues around the primaries is too connected with politics.”

But Catholic officials, in their quest to push out other health care providers, leave women in large swaths of the country without access to contraception or abortion care, conveniently don’t see it a conflict.

“I don’t see any kind of ethical or moral concern here,” said the Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, an agency that analyzes healthcare and life science issues from the standpoint of church moral tradition.

“The concern is at the front end, when you’re donating money to an entity that’s taking that money and using it in a contradictory way.”

What the Bishops really want is control… complete control over the health care system, forming it to their ideology and turning medicine into a religious endeavor.  Then they can ensure that there are few to no options left for women to control their reproductive lives, decide on the number and timing of the children they have, or terminate an unwanted or life-threatening pregnancy… and they are using our tax dollars and charitable contributions to do it.

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