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February 5, 2012

Susan G. Komen for the Cure Shows Their True Colors

By now almost everyone has heard about the controversy surrounding Susan G. Komen for the Cure's decision to stop giving grants to Planned Parenthood for breast exams and cancer screenings. After a huge outcry that included thousands of social media comments, signatures on petitions, and pressure from politicians and other public figures, the Komen foundation put out a statement yesterday apologizing (kinda) and reversing their decision (maybe).

If you haven't been following the story that closely, you might think that Komen's apology represents a happy ending and that we can all go back to supporting both organizations. But this incident has brought so much information to light that many people are rethinking their support of Komen. (As we mentioned in our last post, we've done the Race for the Cure in the past but more recently we've been critical of the Komen foundation as well.) There's so much info out there and so many questions being raised, so I thought I'd put together an overview of the main issues with Komen that are being discussed right now. It's packed with links so you can read more about any aspect of this that you're interested in.

-Komen's official explanations for their decision don't make much sense

Komen initially claimed that Planned Parenthood was getting cut off because they were adopting new rules that prevented them from giving grants to organizations that are under investigation. People started poking holes in this right away, pointing out that the current investigation of Planned Parenthood in Congress is being carried out by anti-choice Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns (who just might have an agenda), and that it had been ongoing for months with Planned Parenthood's full cooperation and had yet to turn up evidence of wrongdoing. Also of note is the fact that Komen didn't pull any of their grant money from Penn State, which would most definitely qualify as "under investigation" at the moment. (And they're not alone - Komen gives and takes money from quite a few organizations that are being investigated.) But strangely there didn't seem to be any other groups besides Planned Parenthood that were actually affected by these new rules.

After people started raising these questions, Komen seemed to change course and started claiming that the decision wasn't about investigations and they just wanted to give more grants directly to providers of mammograms and less to groups like Planned Parenthood that mainly do referrals. This new explanation contradicted the statements that Komen board member John D. Raffaelli made to the New York Times, as well as Komen's own internal documents about the issue, so by this point most people weren't buying either explanation.

-Komen's response to the criticism was detached and dismissive

The Komen foundation's response to this controversy is a textbook example of a social media and PR fail. First, they allowed the outcry to rage all over the internet for more than 24 hours and get picked up by the media before they said anything at all. When they finally did respond, it was with a video called "Straight Talk" in which Komen founder Nancy Brinker rather blandly explained that their new granting strategy had been "regrettably mischaracterized" and would actually allow them to help more women. She insisted that the decision wasn't about bowing to political pressure, but never mentioned Planned Parenthood by name and didn't address the critics of the decision in any meaningful way, except to complain that the "scurrilous accusations" against the organization were "profoundly hurtful".

The next day, Brinker took her show on the road and did an interview with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell which did not go too well for her. Mitchell, a breast cancer survivor and Komen supporter, was clearly upset about the situation and asked some tough questions that Brinker didn't seem prepared to answer. The highlight came when Mitchell asked about the massive outcry against Komen's decision and Brinker dismissed it entirely, saying "All I can tell you is that the responses we are getting are very very favorable. People who have bothered to read the material, who have bothered to understand the issues. Again we work from mission." So if you're mad, it's because you're uninformed and you don't get it. Damage control couldn't possibly get smoother or savvier than that, right?

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Komen board member John D. Raffaelli got in on the act too in his interview with the New York Times, implying that Planned Parenthood was unfairly making a big deal out of the situation just to raise money: “Why are they going nuts?” Mr. Raffaelli asked rhetorically. “And the answer is that they want to raise money, and they’re doing it at the expense of a humanitarian organization that shares their goals and has given them millions of dollars over the years.”

And let's not forget this retweet from Komen VP Karen Handel (more on her in a minute):

These examples are a good illustration of Komen's response as a whole. They came across as totally detached and never seemed as if they were trying to really understand why people were upset, even when the criticism was coming from longtime Komen supporters. They treated the entire thing like an inconvenience brought upon them by ignorant people who couldn't understand how great their decision really was, so it's no wonder that many people have been very slow to forgive and forget.

-The incident revealed a conservative culture within Komen

Soon after the news broke about Komen's decision to defund Planned Parenthood, fingers started pointing at Karen Handel, Komen's recently hired Senior VP of Public Policy. Handel is a self-described conservative Republican who was endorsed by Sarah Palin when she ran for governor of Georgia in 2010. She's anti-choice and has publicly stated that she does not support the mission of Planned Parenthood. Komen claims that Handel had nothing to do with the decision to defund Planned Parenthood, but anonymous sources within the organization (and common sense) would suggest otherwise.

To be fair, Handel's not the only anti-choice conservative in the Komen family:
Komen’s board includes Jane Abraham, the General Chairman of the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List (SBA). SBA constantly spreads false information about federal government funding of abortion and public health and medical evidence surrounding safe abortion care. Abraham is also closely tied with the Nurturing Network, which exists for the sole purpose of convincing women that abortions cause a range of unrelated health problems, like promoting the mythical link between abortions and breast cancer. Jodi Jacobson at RH Reality Check rightly asks, “Can you trust a breast cancer organization whose staff and board members lie about breast cancer?”
And then there's Susan G. Komen for the Cure founder Nancy Brinker. Brinker has given more than $175,000 to the RNC and Republican candidates since 1990 and was a huge supporter of George W. Bush, even serving as ambassador to Hungary in his administration. It's also been confirmed that former Bush press secretary Air Fleischer has been involved with developing Komen's strategy regarding Planned Parenthood. So it may be fair to say that Handel isn't responsible for pushing Komen's leadership to the right; she's actually just a reflection of where they already stand.

-Komen's apology and "reversal" doesn't really reverse anything

On Friday, Komen issued a new statement with an apology of sorts:
We want to apologize to the American public for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women’s lives. The events of this week have been deeply unsettling for our supporters, partners and friends and all of us at Susan G. Komen. We have been distressed at the presumption that the changes made to our funding criteria were done for political reasons or to specifically penalize Planned Parenthood. They were not.
They went on to say that they would amend their criteria for grants again to "make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political. That is what is right and fair. " Regarding Planned Parenthood specifically, it states that Komen "will continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants, while maintaining the ability of our affiliates to make funding decisions that meet the needs of their communities."

This was widely reported as a "reversal" on Komen's part, with many headlines announcing that Komen will continue to partner with Planned Parenthood. But some pointed out that the statement doesn't actually reverse anything or make any promises about future grants for Planned Parenthood. It says that Komen will continue to fund its existing grants to Planned Parenthood, which they had said they would do all along, and that Planned Parenthood will be able to apply for more grants in the future. It doesn't guarantee that any of those future grant applications will actually be approved, so basically all the statement does is buy Komen some time to come up with more new rules that allow them to deny Planned Parenthood in the future. (A Komen board member confirmed to the Washington Post that the statement guarantees nothing to Planned Parenthood because that would be "unfair".) Even the apology was of the 'sorry we got caught/sorry you're offended' variety, so it's not surprising that it left many Komen critics unsatisfied.

-Komen's position on stem cell research may also have changed

Almost lost in the controversy surrounding the Planned Parenthood decision was the news that Komen may also be pulling their funding for stem cell research:
Anti-abortion groups are also declaring victory in their parallel attempts to pressure Komen on embryonic stem cell research, another hot-button issue. Anti-abortion groups have targeted Komen for providing funding to any medical institution that also conducts that type of research (even if Komen isn't directly funding it). A few weeks ago, Texas Right to Life flagged a Komen press release from late November explicitly stating that they don't support research that involves "destroying a human embryo" and have never funded that type of research. Both Life News and the National Catholic Register noted the Komen release on Wednesday evening, and Life News reported further that Komen appears to have also ended grants to institutions that conducts embryonic stem cell research. The link to the press release on the Komen site is dead now, and the press release is no longer posted in their media section. The organization did not respond immediately to a request for comment on whether they've changed their policy on this topic as well. [Mother Jones]
Komen's claim that their decision about Planned Parenthood wasn't political and had nothing to do with abortion was already difficult to believe, but if their position on stem cell research has also changed it becomes pretty much impossible.

-So how much of Komen's money actually goes to breast cancer research anyway?

Last year the blog The Cancer Culture Chronicles analyzed Komen's 2010 financial statements to determine how much of their money actually goes to breast cancer research. (There's also a great critique of Komen's four star rating on Charity Navigator.)
In 2009 the Research program received $70.1M or 21% of total revenue, and in 2010 it received $75.4M which, although a slight increase in terms of dollars, only represents 19% of total revenue...relative to dollars earned, allocations to the Research program (purple line) seem to be on a definite downward trend, whilst the other programs remain fairly flat, and Administrative Expenses (orange line) seem to be on the increase.

Analyzing further the financials for Komen's Research program, I find that from the $75.4M allocated to the Research program, that only $62.7M was spent on actual research awards and grants with the remaining $12.7M spent on Professional Fees expense of $6.3M; Salaries and Benefits of $2.8M; and other Operating expenses of $3.6M.

To recap; although the Research program was allocated 19% of total revenue only 16% of total revenue was used to fund actual research! And why the need to spend $6.3M on Professional Fees expense, which is generally fees like accounting, legal, public relations, financial management etc.? 16% to Research is significantly less than the 25% Komen repeatedly claims is used to fund research. And the annual Research program allocation percentage, when compared to total revenue, keeps decreasing!
Also of note is the fact that from 2008-2010, Komen paid an estimated $1.9 million in severance, including large packages for some people who had only been with the organization a short time. Komen's grants to Planned Parenthood are actually a very small piece of their multi-million dollar pie, but their decision to split with Planned Parenthood has opened the door for many people to ask some big questions about their financial integrity.

-Komen, corporate partnerships, and pinkwashing

The Komen foundation has a lot of corporate partners and lends their name to a lot of products that supposedly raise money and awareness "for the cure", which means they are frequently accused of pinkwashing. It often seems like they're putting partnerships, products, and profits above women's health. Examples include their partnership with KFC on pink buckets of fried chicken (healthy!), a pink ribbon credit card by Bank of America (currently being investigated!), and Yoplait's fundraising campaign which requires people to mail in yogurt lids in order to generate a 10 cent donation to Komen (not only not cost effective, but the yogurt itself used to contain the hormone rBGH until a campaign by Breast Cancer Action persuaded Yoplait to remove it). And don't forget your pink gun!

And then there's "Promise Me", a perfume commissioned by Komen last fall. A bottle of Promise Me costs $59, but only about $1.50 of that money actually goes to breast cancer research. The perfume also contains two potentially harmful chemicals not listed in the ingredients.

There's also the fact that Komen downplays and dismisses the potential link between the chemical BPA and cancer, even though there's a lot of evidence to support such a link. Of course, they deny that there's any connection between their stance on BPA and the fact that they partner with so many companies that use BPA in their products (including many of those pink products that raise money for Komen).

-Komen has engaged in some questionable lobbying efforts

This current controversy has caused people to take another look at some past criticisms of the way that Komen lobbies for and against certain legislation, including questions about what kind of help Komen believes poor women should get to pay for cancer care, and about whether Komen really supports research into potential environmental causes of breast cancer. Here are a couple of excerpts:
In 2000, when I first became a breast cancer activist, one of my first assignments was contacting the senators and members of Congress in my area to encourage their support for the Breast & Cervical Cancer Prevention & Treatment Act. The bill was to provide Medicaid coverage for uninsured women diagnosed through the Breast & Cervical Cancer Prevention & Screening Act, which had been passed several years earlier. IOW, the Treatment Act was necessary because uninsured women were getting no-cost breast cancer diagnosis, but still had no means to pay for treatment.

...Upon calling my GOP senator and speaking with his aide, I was shocked to hear her tell me "Sen.__ can't sign on as a co-sponsor to the bill because all the breast cancer groups aren't in agreement on it." Shocked, I asked her who was opposing it. She told me that Komen opposed the bill. When I asked her why, she explained that Komen felt that treatment for uninsured breast cancer patients should be funded through private donations, like the pink ribbon race. I was speechless, in shock. A phone call to another activist confirmed it was true - Komen was lobbying behind the scenes to kill the bill. A moment later, Sen.__'s aide called me back and begged me not to repeat our conversation to anyone, that she had given me the information by mistake.

...In 2009, Komen lobbied behind the scenes to weaken the health care bill (ACA) as it was being debated in Congress. They hired Hadassah Lieberman, wife of Joe, in an effort to convince Joementum to vote against the Public Option. Komen spent over $1 million in 2008 & 2009, on behind the scenes lobbying related to the health care reform bill, so who knows what else was on their agenda.

...They worked for several years to stall or kill the Breast Cancer & Environmental Research Act. In the end, they eviscerated it by removing new funding for environmental research and substituting a panel to review all research on breast cancer & environment. Using private funds, they recently collaborated with the Institute of Medicine to develop said report. Released last December, it sadly detailed the same old arguments that there's no evidence of links between environmental toxins and that no further research should be done on the subject since everyone has those toxins in their bodies already. Instead they chose to blame breast cancer patients for getting the disease (more here).[Daily Kos]

...most people would be shocked to find that the Komen Foundation helped block a meaningful Patients Bill of Rights for the women it has purported to serve since the group began in 1982.

Despite proclaiming herself before a 2001 Congressional panel as a "patient advocate for the past 20 years," demanding access to the best possible medical care for all breast cancer patients, Federal Election Commission records show the Komen Foundation and its allies lobbied against the consumer-friendly version of the Patients Bill of Rights in 1999, 2000 and 2001. Brinker then trumpeted old friend George W. Bush in August 2001 for backing a "strong" Patients' Bill of Rights, while most patient advocates felt betrayed. [AlterNet - Read the whole thing. Seriously, go. I'll wait.]
You can go to OpenSecrets.org for more information on just how much money Susan G. Komen for the Cure spends on lobbying and where they direct their efforts, and thanks to this current controversy I think we can expect for questions to be raised and more information to come to light about exactly what they're lobbying for, and against, and whether those efforts really match the mission they keep telling us they care so much about.

-Komen takes legal action in defense of their brand at the expense of smaller charities

The Komen foundation is very devoted to protecting their brand. So devoted, in fact, that they've spent thousands of dollars taking legal action against smaller charities that use any variation on the phrase "for the cure".
So far, Komen has identified and filed legal trademark oppositions against more than a hundred of these Mom and Pop charities, including Kites for a Cure, Par for The Cure, Surfing for a Cure and Cupcakes for a Cure--and many of the organizations are too small and underfunded to hold their ground.

"It happened to my family," said Roxanne Donovan, whose sister runs Kites for a Cure, a family kite-flying event that raises money for lung cancer research. "They came after us ferociously with a big law firm. They said they own 'cure' in a name and we had to stop using it, even though we were raising money for an entirely different cause."
I doubt this is what most people envision their money being used for when they make a donation to the Komen foundation.

-This incident has given new life to the myth that abortion causes breast cancer

One negative side effect of this whole mess is that some in the anti-choice community have used the situation as an opportunity to promote the myth that abortion causes breast cancer. There were many comments from anti-choicers on Komen's facebook page touting the supposed link between abortion and breast cancer as a reason why Komen never should have partnered with Planned Parenthood in the first place, and the "theory" that abortion causes breast cancer was cited by several anti-choice organizations in their responses to Komen's decision to split with Planned Parenthood.

For the record, Komen's website lists abortion as a factor that does not increase the risk of breast cancer and states that "research clearly shows no link between the two". So while Komen can't be held responsible for every misleading report from a pro-life website or ignorant comment on their facebook page, it's unfortunate that they've opened the door for so much harmful misinformation to be spread and will most likely do nothing to help correct the record.

I'm sure I've missed a lot, but this overview should give you an idea of just how big the Komen story really is. Komen may have apologized, but many people now have a new perspective on the organization, and the debate continues. Here are a few of the recent comments from Komen's facebook page:
Nancy and Karen ran this charity like a Jr League bake sale. They need to be called out for all the things that most people never knew they were doing. The bullying of smaller orgs, the paltry sums spent on research, the huge severance packages to short term employees, the lobbying against patients rights....this is merely the last straw.

To me they appear to have actually been a money laundering business instead of a charity. I'm glad that I learned so much more about the underlying issues of this charity. Selling a bunch of pink crap doesn't make a charity for which it was founded - it was founded to find a cure for breast cancer - why then would they squash things that could have been a cure.

I actually had no idea about this organization until all this stuff hit the fan, but it's been fascinating to see all their dirty laundry finally aired out.

I so agree with you. We've all been looking at the world through the Komen Foundation's "pink-colored" glasses.
Some are calling on Komen to take further action - there's a petition on change.org right now asking that the organization get back to their mission by firing Karen Handel and returning to "a non-partisan, science-based approach" to finding a cure. I understand this effort, but also feel that Komen's "mission" is exactly what they want it to be right now. They wanted to hire Handel and they wanted to walk away from Planned Parenthood, just like they want to engage in constant pinkwashing and collect as much money from corporate partners as possible. At this point, I feel like the best course is to continue to hold Komen accountable, but also work to make them less powerful and relevant, and give our support and money and time to other organizations whose missions are truly worth that support.

The good news in all of this is that Planned Parenthood has raised thousands of dollars since this story broke, including a $100,000 grant from LiveStrong and $250,000 from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which means that a lot of women are going to get the care that they need.

The situation has also raised awareness for some of the other breast cancer organizations that are out there doing great work with a fraction of the budget and the publicity that Komen enjoys. One organization like this that we support is Breast Cancer Action. For years they've been teaching people how to "think before you pink" and running successful campaigns against pinkwashing, they have a strict policy about corporate contributions, and they're committed to challenging the status quo of breast cancer and working to turn awareness into action. Susan G. Komen for the Cure could learn a lot from them if they ever took off those pink-colored glasses.


Anonymous said...

Odd timing that Komen just *had* to put both feet in their mouth by engaging in US election-year abortion politics almost exactly (same week) as an excellent feature-length documentary on pinkwashing, Pink Ribbons Inc. http://www.thestar.com/article/1124845--pink-ribbons-inc-review-not-so-pretty-in-pink started running in theatres.

Many of the issues raised by the film are, admittedly, already raised in the 2006 book of the same name, on sites like thinkbeforeyoupink.org or elsewhere on the web, but were it not for all the PP publicity a huge amount of attention could've been avoided regarding Komen's other issues - specifically that their objective is no longer to determine what is causing this cancer in the first place, but instead is to conduct a slickly-packaged pink marketing event to sell sponsors' products by hijacking the agenda of those who support cancer patients.

Let's hope the usual mainstream sources pick up on the rest of the story (from questionable sponsorship tie-ins to unhealthy products, to the self-serving political lobbying efforts, to the dumbed-down message that refuses to acknowledge that WOMEN ARE DYING OF CANCER for no fault of their own.

Bessie Wills said...

"Examples include their partnership with KFC on pink buckets of fried chicken (healthy!), a pink ribbon credit card by Bank of America (currently being investigated!), and Yoplait's fundraising campaign which requires people to mail in yogurt lids"

Healthy? I don't think fastfood is really healthy. Most of them can cause obesity. There are also fastfoods that are GMO. I'd rather eat fermented foods.

Anonymous said...

That's our point. Komen's partnership with KFC is an example of how they put partnerships, products, and profits above women's health.