Although the decision was made by Susan G. Komen in December 2011 to defund Planned Parenthood's breast cancer screenings for women, word didn't get out until February 2012. When it did, public reaction was swift and negative -- a response that took Komen by surprise. The news went viral and longtime supporters employed social media to express their outrage at the actions of the once-trusted breast cancer charity. Below is a look at both Komen and Planned Parenthood, details of the controversy, Komen's eventual reversal of its decision and the aftermath of the organization's actions.
When Harris Interactive surveyed Americans about their opinions of over 1,000 charities, it found that Susan B. Komen For the Cure was the charity that people were most likely to donate to. According to Joanne Fritz, About.com Guide ton Nonprofit Charitable Organizations, four factors have been key to Komen's success:
- A great story involving founder Nancy G. Brinker promising her dying sister Susan G. Komen in 1982 that she would work to end breast cancer forever.
- A universal foe -- breast cancer -- that everyone is willing to fight via fundraising and Komen's ubiquitous Race For the Cure.
- An extremely high profile through its annual Race and its partnerships with corporations, governments and advocacy groups around the world to raise awareness and provide treatment.
- A long track record of providing funds for research -- over $40 million annually.
Today's Planned Parenthood has its roots in the nation's first birth control clinic founded by family planning advocate Margaret Sanger in 1916. As the leading provider of sexual and reproductive health care provider and advocacy group in the nation, Planned Parenthood's mission encompasses four critical areas:
- comprehensive reproductive and related health care services
- advocacy to ensure that public policy decisions respect privacy and individual rights
- educational services focused on human sexuality
- research and advancement in reproductive health care.
Over the years opponents have focused attention on Planned Parenthood's abortion services and effectively deflected public attention from the vast majority of the organization's work. Only 3% of Planned Parenthood services are abortion services, while the other 97% includes testing and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, contraception, cancer screening and prevention, and pregnancy testing and prenatal services. Nearly 15% is geared toward cancer screening ad prevention, half of which involves breast exams and breast care. These were the services which were at risk when Susan G. Komen For the Cure threatened to end funding and instead distribute these dollars directly to facilities and agencies which offer mammograms -- a sticking point as Planned Parenthood only provides mammogram referrals but does not do them.
When Susan G. Komen decided to pull nearly $680,000 of funding from Planned Parenthood for breast health exams, the organization cited the implementation of a new rule prohibiting organizations under government investigation from receiving grants. But then the rationale changed as Komen was swamped by a wave of negative reactions. Founder Nancy G. Brinker explained that Komen wanted to "eliminate duplicative grants" and "grant to the provider who is actually providing the life-saving mammogram." Yet Planned Parenthood fought back, arguing that the decision was politically motivated. Many blamed Komen's policy change on one woman -- a recent addition to Komen's management team, pro-life advocate Karen Handel. Opponents noted that during a failed gubernatorial run in Georgia, Handel had made clear her intent to defund Planned Parenthood if elected and had continued to purse that agenda in her new position at Komen.
It took less than a week for controversial Komen Vice President Karen Handel to step down from her post at a breast cancer charity organization that could do no wrong until it attempted to cut funding for Planned Parenthood. What a difference a week makes. Gone is the universal goodwill toward Komen, gone is the grassroots support of millions of women who have been touched by breast cancer, either in their own lives or in the lives of those they love, and gone is the brand that made pink ribbons ubiquitous in our culture. What arose out of the debacle are three key points:
- much of the nation still doesn't understand what Planned Parenthood does
- the politics of how decision are made are frequently masked
- the power of social media cannot be underestimated as a tool of political activism
Whether you agree or disagree with the initial Komen decision to defund Planned Parenthood, the controversy taught us to carefully scrutinize those charitable organizations we support. As About.com Guide to Nonprofit Organizations Joanne Fritz notes, "careful donors have to be to make sure that their money is going to organizations that truly match their personal, religious, moral, and political beliefs. Looking under the covers to see who else is bedding down with our favorite nonprofit through political ties, funding, or favorite ideologies is just something that we all must now do." Fritz also reminds us to think twice about buying products "spruced up with cause marketing" and consider if this is a charity you really want to support.