Komen and Planned Parenthood: The pink army revolts

Thousands of people race for the cure Thousands of Americans have participated in Komen's Race for the Cure events

The Komen foundation taught women to fight for breast cancer care. Then they cut funding, and women fought back.

Before Susan G Komen, breast cancer was at worst a shameful secret, and at best a cold, clinical tragedy that most women felt lucky enough to ignore.

Thanks to their relentless campaigning and unprecedented fundraising, the Komen foundation turned breast cancer into one of the most prominent causes in America.

They empowered women to take control of their health and demand proper care, and in the process raised millions.

So when Komen announced they would no longer fund breast cancer prevention programs provided by Planned Parenthood, they faced a week's worth of scorching attacks, and eventually revised their new policy.

In the end, Komen was defeated by an army of their own making.

"They have for almost 30 years been promoting a message of empowerment and taking responsibility of your health and sisterhood, and it was a large part of that constituency that rose up against them," says Samantha King, a professor at Queens University in Ontario and author of the book Pink Ribbons Inc.

Uncontroversial beginnings

The Susan G Komen for the Cure Foundation began in 1982 and grew to be the "global leader of the breast cancer movement," investing more than $1bn in cancer research and support.

It partnered with corporations and universities, making breast cancer awareness synonymous with pink and pink synonymous with women everywhere.

Their Race for the Cure events spread across the country, creating a place where survivors and their supporters could celebrate life while raising money. Their savvy corporate partnerships turned the supermarket pink with branded products, making everyone feel like they were doing their part to fight the disease just by ticking off their shopping list.

Komen's Statement (excerpt)

We want to apologise 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 penalise Planned Parenthood. They were not.

Our original desire was to fulfil our fiduciary duty to our donors by not funding grant applications made by organisations under investigation. We will amend the criteria to make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political. That is what is right and fair.

"Instead of being about the metastatic disease of the mammary gland, they converted breast cancer into one of the least controversial things in the world, which is there's a woman in your life that you love," says Amanda Bower, associate professor of marketing and advertising at Washington and Lee university.

That non-controversial stance and mass appeal made the charity attractive to corporate sponsors, which increased its visibility and spread its core message: that breast cancer was the main health priority for women of all ages, and the fight against it a worthy cause for all Americans.

"I've given a lot of talks on breast cancer. At the end of the session people will come up to me and say, 'I have lung cancer. Why doesn't anyone ever give a talk about that?'" says Barren Lerner, author of The Breast Cancer Wars and professor of medicine at the Columbia University Medical school. "The answer is a group like Komen hasn't emerged to publicise it in that sort of way."

Pink revolution

The face of Komen had always been non-political. "[Komen president] Nancy Brinker especially has been heard to say 'We don't think this is political, I don't consider myself an activist, and I'm especially not a feminist. Breast cancer affects everyone'," says Ms King.

With that unifying stance, it motivated a generation of women dedicated to breast cancer awareness, a pink army mobilised to protect every resource available in the fight against breast cancer.

In 2009, the United States Preventive Services Task Force issued new guidelines for mammograms. Research showed that women had been getting too many, and the mammograms were turning up too many false positives, leading to both unnecessary cancer treatments and radiation exposure.

While previous guidelines encouraged women to start getting mammograms at age 40, the new recommendations said it was better to wait until aged 50.

On the face of it, it looked like a common-sense guideline founded on evidence-based medicine. But the reaction from American women was one of outrage. They literally took to the street in protest, while celebrity survivors gave interviews decrying the decision.

Their feelings were bolstered by Komen, who demanded that these recommendations not impact insurance coverage for women under 50. In an official statement, they noted that: "The failure of age-appropriate women to undergo mammography costs lives and reflects problems with access to care and breast cancer education. We need to work as rapidly as possible to correct these deficiencies."

So when a new obstacle came to mammogram funding, Komen shouldn't have been surprised - even if they were the ones making the change.

"They have created a group of women, many of whom are survivors or family members, many of whom are enormously passionate about anything you can do about breast cancer, whether it's treatment, prevention, or research," says Dr Lerner.

"These are absolutely the last people in the world who would tolerate this kind of move."

Online activism

When the news broke that Komen would no longer offer grants to Planned Parenthood - a decision that affected about 117,000 women's ability to receive preventative care - many of the same women who had pinned pink ribbons on their Twitter avatars and posted their bra colour on Facebook in the name of cancer awareness were tweeting, posting and emailing about the decision.

Komen gave multiple reasons for their decision. Still, people couldn't help but feel that cutting ties with Planned Parenthood, a political lightning rod for its abortion services, was motivated by something other than health.

They were outraged that politics had trumped cancer care.

More problems with Komen

As Komen has grown more powerful, it has attracted more criticism.

  • Activists were upset that Komen paired with KFC in 2010, saying the fast food fried chicken was not an appropriate pairing for an organisation concerned with health
  • A 2010 Wall Street Journal article claimed that Komen's was aggressive in suing smaller charities who used "for the cure" in their name, like Kayak for the Cure or Bark for the Cure
  • Promise Me, a perfume Komen released before Christmas 2011, was reformulated by Komen after consumers complained that it included possibly carcinogenic chemicals

Soon enough, they were retweeting, reposting, and forwarding messages, building a groundswell of opposition and a united front against Komen's increasingly ham-handed response.

Indeed, the outrage seemed to startle the Komen foundation, which at one point released a statement saying it was "dismayed and disappointed" by people's reactions. Komen president Ms Brinker gave a contentious interview with MSNBC cable news anchor Andrea Mitchell, saying that people who "bothered to read" the decision were reacting favourably.

The Komen foundation have been "incredibly tone deaf", says Ms Bower.

In the end, Komen reversed course, though the language of their new policy is still being parsed.

But throughout the entire ordeal, their frustration was palpable: Komen had spent years telling women how to fight against breast cancer. Why weren't they being taken at face value, or trusted to make executive-level decisions about what was best?

Because, in part, Komen built their reputation by refusing to kow-tow to authority if care was at stake, and by showing the world that when individual women work together, they have the power to fight for change.


More on This Story

In today's Magazine


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    #25 Romance_Editor -"Years ago I stopped buying any product with the pinkwash campaign ribbon."

    Me too. I started avoiding the Pink Ribbon stuff as soon as I started seeing it EVERYWHERE. That sends a message to me that they have gone from caring about the cause, to pure greed. Too much advertisement is a bad thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Jersey Mike's Subs did a 3 month fund raising campaign for Komen in their stores this year despite having High Fructose Corn Syrup in the bread which is linked to obesity which in turn is linked to cancer.
    Komen did a similar fund raiser with Kentucky Fried Chicken. I now have a second reason to not eat at these places now we know they are raising money for the right wing fanatics !

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Komen will do ANYTHING for money. It's become an out of control money machine. I will no longer support it. I will now give my donations directly to Planned Parenthood. Komen is not to be trusted any more - it's all about money and has lost touch with it's original aim. The Chairwoman of Komen needs to step down. I am disgusted with her behavior.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Women who have the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 gene, already face life-changing decisions to risk the surgery of double mastectomies or oopherectomy as a prophylactic procedure. having breasts and ovaries removed to save their own lives. You cannot help the genetic dice you have been thrown. Your grandmother was already handing you the family genetics when she was conceived.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    #36: I know of several such stories. American medicine is overpriced, over-hyped, and an economic disaster area, thanks to decades of Republican politicking to keep insurance companies and private hospitals rich. These people are scoundrels and parasites, constantly on the attack, and very very hard to get rid of. They are wrecking the US, as the sorry state of US medicine demonstrates.


Comments 5 of 45



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.