When Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the country’s leading breast cancer advocacy group, announced in early February that it would no longer contribute money to Planned Parenthood, it ignited a firestorm of controversy. Komen’s grants have helped Planned Parenthood provide breast cancer screenings for 170,000 women a year — many of them poor and women of color who otherwise would have no access to diagnosis and treatment of their cancers.
Komen claimed the decision was due to a new policy not to give money to organizations under investigation by local, state or federal authorities. A politically charged probe of Planned Parenthood was begun late last year by U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, a pro-life Florida Republican. Women around the country were stunned and angered by Komen’s decision. Within hours, mostly small donors had raised over a million dollars for Planned Parenthood to replace Komen’s yearly grant of about $700,000. So intense was the backlash that Komen was forced to reverse course and apologize after just two days.
Women’s rights under sharp attack. Komen’s public relations disaster comes at a critical time. Rightwingers in Congress are determined to pull the plug on Planned Parenthood, also the nation’s largest abortion provider. On the state level, 92 measures designed to restrict a woman’s access to abortion were passed last year in 24 states — the most ever. In 2012, another twelve states will consider so-called personhood laws, which declare that fertilized eggs are legal persons. These measures typically include prohibitions against some contraceptives, the morning-after pill and even in vitro fertilization. The aim of all this anti-woman legislation is to make abortion, if not illegal, then unobtainable in this country.
In the meantime, the extreme pro-lifers have moved the whole discussion about women’s reproductive health far to the right. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum says he wants to outlaw contraception in addition to abortion. He has even railed against amniocentesis, a procedure done during pregnancy to assess the heath of the fetus, as a plot to weed out the disabled! And every Republican hopeful but one has signed something called the “Personhood Pledge.”
Broadcasting bigotry. In this over-heated atmosphere, right wing gas bag Rush Limbaugh could not contain himself. He called Sandra Fluke, a young law student who was denied the opportunity to testify on an all-male panel discussing contraception before a House committee in February, a “prostitute” and a “slut.” He suggested that if she wanted taxpayers to pay for her birth control, she should make a pornographic video of herself having all that sex. What had she done to earn these vicious remarks? She had dared to argue that contraceptives be covered by the student health plan at her Catholic-run university.
Within a few days of his sexist diatribe, Limbaugh’s radio show had lost over two dozen sponsors, thanks to the irate women who called Clear Channel to complain. As the FS goes to press, the pressure is building to get Limbaugh kicked off the airwaves permanently.
Komen’s right-wing backers. In this context, it is clear that Komen did not merely cave in to pressure from the right. Karen Handel, Komen’s VP for Public Policy, is widely viewed as the woman behind the action against Planned Parenthood. She is an anti-abortion zealot who was defeated in her bid for governor of Georgia in 2010. Less well known is her campaign as Secretary of State to purge 200,000 names from voting records, which the Department of Justice said amounted to race discrimination.
In fact, the Komen board is full of anti-abortion activists, corporate lobbyists and right wing political types. Nancy Brinker, Komen’s founder, served as ambassador to Hungary under the last Bush administration. Real estate developer Linda Law, another board member, is an influential fundraising bundler for the Republican National Committee. Former Bush press secretary Ari Fleisher, it turns out, was instrumental in getting Karen Handel hired by the board in the first place.
Female self-defense. Many have criticized Komen’s corporate approach to the fight against breast cancer. The hugely profitable 5K “Race for the Cure” events held annually around the U.S. feature inspirational stories of individual women beating a devastating disease, but they lack substance. What’s missing is information on environmental pollutants, industrial carcinogens, and dietary causes of cancer. Nor are the needs of uninsured women addressed, who are screened for breast cancer but can’t afford treatment.
In the case of Komen vs. Planned Parenthood, not to mention Limbaugh vs. all women, it’s clear that swift public reaction has made them back down. But it will take far more than phone calls to stop the attacks. It will require a militant, in-your-face movement to challenge the woman-haters and right wing ideologues who want to kick women out of the public sphere and back to the Middle Ages.
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