Many of you have probably read about the Susan G. Komen Foundation cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood for breast exams and other breast health related services. Before I offer my thoughts on that issue, I know I’m likely to annoy and potentially offend some people with this post, and I do think that is unfortunate. However, I’ve been pretty close to this issue in the past and I feel that politics are in this case having a direct negative affect on the healthcare of women, so I felt like offering my opinion. I’d like to thank a blog I follow, Cognitive Dissonance, for bringing this issue up and encouraging discussion about it. Although I think most of you will discover our blogs tend to be on different sides of the political spectrum, I think her thoughts are also worth a read.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me explain my involvement on the issue from the Komen side of things. Yes, I was formerly a member of the steering committee for a regional Komen affiliate. No, that affiliate did not give any grants to Planned Parenthood offices. No, I have never worked with any Planned Parenthood office in any capacity, Komen or otherwise. No, I did not receive financial compensation for my work with that Komen affiliate. My position was purely dedicated to the regional Race for the Cure and organizing and recruiting volunteers for the event, so I don’t feel there is any conflict of interest on this issue. I do think my past work with Komen and my current status as a medical student shows my commitment to the well being and health of women, and I hope most of you will take that into account when considering my opinion.
To provide a quick summary of what happened, feel free to read this article at NPR regarding Komen’s decision to cut off grants to Planned Parenthood: http://www.npr.org/2012/01/31/146160911/susan-g-komen-halts-grants-to-planned-parenthood . Basically Komen has been providing grants to a handful of Planned Parenthood offices in low income areas of cities across the country to specifically offer breast exams and education to women in their communities for several years. The grant funds were restricted to these purposes and monitored to ensure the grant recipients used those funds for the sole purpose of breast exams and education. I’m sure all of you know Planned Parenthood’s reputation as the nation’s largest “abortion provider” and generally speaking, that’s probably true. But my personal feelings aside on their involvement in abortions, I do realize that they are often one of the few healthcare facilities of any sort in very low income areas. Many of the women they see do not have health insurance and do not keep regular appointments with their primary care doctor, if they have a primary care doctor at all. Regional Komen affiliates started offering these grants to Planned Parenthood offices in their areas because they saw the need these women had for breast exams and recognized a lack of infrastructure in their neighborhoods to provide these services to them. They also saw the data showing these women often don’t catch their breast cancer until it is much farther along than women who get routine breast exams and as a result their outcomes were much worse. Was it an ideal partnership? No, probably not. But this partnership did allow thousands of women to get a free breast exam and learn more about performing self exams and breast cancer in general that otherwise wouldn’t have had access to these resources. The offices would be listed and publicized as offering these exams for women and word would get out to the community that a free exam was available in their neighborhood. These aren’t just women that were coming to Planned Parenthood for abortions or other reproductive health reasons (not that it should matter if it was, those women need access to breast exams too), these exams were available to everyone in the community. Komen had strict rules about how the Planned Parenthood offices promoted these exams and how they had to be independent of their other services. So why are the grants being cut off? That’s where it gets political.
The Komen national office recently adopted a new rule that they could not provide grant funding to any organization under investigation by local, state, or federal authorities. Sure, I thought, that sounds pretty reasonable: Why would Komen want to allow their funds to go to any organization that might be misusing them? It’s when you start reading the articles and looking into it further that you see this rule was adopted just around the time that Planned Parenthood was put under investigation by Representative Cliff Stearns from Florida. It could be coincidence, and the rule itself sounds logical, but you also have to think about the amount of political and religious pressure Komen has been under for the last few years to cut off funding to any Planned Parenthood offices. I know Komen is saying they’re cutting Planned Parenthood off because of the investigation (which may or may not be legitimate, I haven’t looked into it), but I find that hard to believe since they’ve also purged any mention of their involvement with Planned Parenthood and their explanation pages about the grants from their website on the same day they made the announcement. They’re not just cutting off the grants, they seem to want people to forget they ever provided the grants in the first place, and to me that sounds like they are caving to political pressures.
I dealt with my own concerns about Komen’s involvement with Planned Parenthood even before I worked with my regional affiliate, but after looking into it I decided that the grants were being used for good purposes and were in no way endorsing or supporting abortion. I think the religious organizations, some of which I generally respect, that have painted pictures of these grants as being Komen supporting abortion should be ashamed of themselves. They’ve boycotted Komen, made newsletters claiming Komen is funneling money to abortion providers (a deliberate or lazy twisting of the facts at best), and gotten thousands of pro-life people very riled up against Komen knowing those people won’t put in enough research to learn the whole truth behind the grants. They like to claim that these few regional affiliates that provided the grants (around 19 in total, it’s not as if a lot of affiliates were even providing grants to Planned Parenthood in the first place) could have given the money to other types of healthcare facilities in the low income areas of their regions to accomplish the same purpose, but I think that’s very short sighted and unrealistic. I’ve seen how Komen works when deciding who to award their grants to and there are always far more applicants than there are funds. If these affiliates were giving the grants to Planned Parenthood offices in their communities, I’m confident it is because they felt it was the only place these women would be able to get the care they needed. People need to face the facts and take a drive through the poorest parts of their community and tell me what they see. Yes, there are the occasional free clinics, but are they open every day? Do they have the necessary facilities and staff that are trained or can be trained to provide breast exams on a daily basis? Are there any churches, community centers, or other local non profits with the necessary facilities and staff? I think you’ll find the answer to all of these can be no in a lot of poor areas and a place like Planned Parenthood may simply be the only option. There are broader social concerns that this should also raise for those of us that aren’t a fan of Planned Parenthood but see the lack of other providers in these communities, but the bottom line is these grants went to a good cause administered through a politically divisive organization and the politics seem to have come crashing down on Komen in a way that forced their decision. Even the most adamant pro-life among us should take a good look at what was actually going on here and re-examine their position on Komen and these grants, because I fear they’ve cost thousands of women ready access to breast exams and I don’t see any way that is morally defensible.
As always, I’m interested to hear your opinion on these issues.