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Renée Loth

Not so pretty in pink

Komen’s funding reversal is proof of the power of social media and the support for women’s health

By Renée Loth
February 4, 2012
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THIS WEEK, with exquisitely poor timing, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast cancer foundation sent me a fundraising letter, complete with those personalized mailing labels charities often include as a thank-you. They were pretty with their pink ribbons, but I tossed them aside, furious that Komen had just announced it was cutting all funding for breast cancer screenings and education programs conducted by Planned Parenthood. I wasn’t using those labels - on the donation letter or anything else - for an organization that had so clearly buckled to pressure from anti-abortion groups, and so badly lost focus on women’s health.

Apparently I wasn’t alone, because yesterday the Komen foundation announced it was reversing its decision just three days after singling out Planned Parenthood for elimination from Komen’s grant criteria. Nancy Brinker, Komen’s founder and CEO, apologized “for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women’s lives.’’

The reversal shows the emerging political power of social media, which had been ablaze with Komen supporters heartbroken that the well-regarded organization would politicize a public health crisis and polarize a tight-knit community. In 24 hours, Planned Parenthood raised $400,000 in a special breast health fund to replace the $680,000 in Komen grants it received this year. On Thursday the director of the Massachusetts Komen affiliate, Ronni Cohen-Boyar, described the reaction of her local members as “active,’’ then laughed ruefully.

In recent months advocates have been flexing their muscle in unprecedented ways using new technologies. Bank behemoths retreated from imposing new fees, and Congress shelved an Internet piracy bill, after feeling the lash from a fired-up cyber army. This week’s furor shows that women used Twitter to good effect.

The reversal also demonstrates the influence of the local Komen affiliates, which had not been consulted on the initial decision and were reeling following the announcement. The Connecticut chapter posted a message on its Facebook page Tuesday saying it “enjoys a great relationship’’ with Planned Parenthood and would continue to fund grants through the cycle. The medical advisor of the New York chapter threatened to resign.

All seven California affiliates posted a message saying they “strongly opposed’’ the decision by Komen headquarters, based in Dallas. In Massachusetts, where Planned Parenthood doesn’t even apply for Komen grants, Cohen-Boyar was busy drafting a letter of opposition for approval by her board when news of the reversal broke. “We were really disappointed about anything that could inhibit a woman getting care,’’ she said.

The Komen Foundation saved face – and untold millions in donations and good will - by “clarifying’’ its internal rules on awarding grants. But it stood by its disingenuous statement that its initial policy “isn’t about politics.’’ Of course it was. Planned Parenthood has been under withering assault from anti-abortion forces and their political allies for years - despite the fact that 97 percent of its services are for preventative measures such as contraception and breast exams, and only three percent for abortion.

An organization called Life Decisions International has targeted Komen - along with other nonprofits, from the Rotary Club to the Girl Scouts - that “support Planned Parenthood’s deadly agenda.’’ Some opponents even go after Brinker because she once served on a Planned Parenthood advisory board in Texas and received an award from the organization in 1996.

Komen’s decision clearly backfired, creating discord in the organization and only galvanizing Planned Parenthood’s supporters. But that’s not the point. Nearly 300,000 women will receive a new breast cancer diagnosis this year. Planned Parenthood provided 170,000 clinical breast exams with Komen grant money in poor and rural areas where a Planned Parenthood clinic is sometimes the only medical facility around. “This feels very hurtful because we both share a common goal,’’ Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation, said hours before Komen’s about-face. “This is a time when women really need to stand together.’’

Precisely. Breast cancer doesn’t care if its victims support abortion or not. The disease doesn’t discriminate. The Komen foundation learned the hard way that it shouldn’t, either.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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