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Susan G. Komen Foundation Is Now The “Pro-Life Breast Cancer Charity”

February 2, 2012

The decision by the Susan G. Komen For the Cure, a breast cancer non-profit whose income topped $350 million in 2008, to rescind $700,000 in funding for Planned Parenthood has inflamed passions on both sides of the abortion issue. As blogger Kivi Leroux Miller puts it, this action has resulted in “the accidental rebranding of what is surely one of America’s biggest and most well-known, and even well-loved, nonprofit brands. Komen for the Cure, it seems, is no longer a breast cancer charity, but a pro-life breast cancer charity  .” In real terms, Komen has taken away funding that supports breast cancer screening for 170,000 low-income women in 16 local Planned Parenthood affiliates. In the longer term this action raises questions about the political and ideological forces that help guide a successful organization like the Komen Foundation.

The Planned Parenthood decision, which was made “quietly” late last year, is not the only reason to question some of Komen’s motives and to wonder what motivates its backers. The organization, which created the hugely popular (and profitable) “Race for the Cure” runs and multi-day walks as well as the ubiquitous “pinkwashing” of products as varied as yogurt containers, running shoes and buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, has always been focused on marketing and fundraising. In fact, this is a primary focus of an organization like Komen; since 1992 the group has raised $1.2 billion to help support breast cancer research, free breast cancer screenings and to promote education about maintaining breast health.

But despite their support of research and under-served community programs (like the Planned Parenthood screening effort in Waco, Texas), it’s sometimes hard to justify Komen’s ends with their means—especially when it comes to corporate partners. As Barbara Brenner, past Executive Director at Breast Cancer Action, a grassroots advocacy group that doesn’t accept industry funding and focuses on determining environmental causes of breast cancer says, “Many of those products don’t do anything for breast cancer and some of them are actually bad for our health.” She mentions cars, cosmetics, alcohol, and fast food as key examples of questionable “pinkwashed” Komen partners.

Komen also uses a small portion of donor support to hunt down and threaten to sue other, far smaller cancer organizations that (often unknowingly) use the copyrighted phrase “for the cure” or the color pink in their names or marketing materials. As Huffington Post reported in 2010; “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.”

For Komen, this aggressive defense of trademarks is a financial drop in the bucket—costing about $1 million out of the $350 million the group takes in each year. But the long-term effect is to keep a strangle-hold on a powerful and lucrative marketing tool and image.

This public image has been invaluable for Komen over the years. According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the average individual donation to the charity is small, about $33, “but the foundation’s fundraising efforts have been driven by its ability to reach out to an ever-widening base of support. Its major fundraising vehicle is the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.” According to Komen’s Form 990 (tax filing), some 1.7 million people participated in Race for the Cure events last year that raised almost $180 million. Based on surveys, 82% of those participants “recalled the message that early detection is key to survival.” I’ve run in these races before and donated to friends who have undertaken the multi-day walks. These events evoke strong feelings of kinship, remembrance for victims of breast cancer and make participants feel that they are supporting efforts to cure a dreaded disease.

But sometimes that “sea of pink” can be overwhelming–and nauseating. And as for that early detection message, (a large part of the education programs that Komen spends a whopping 34% of its budget on) I feel less comfortable embracing Komen’s unquestioning support for the benefits of mammography—especially in low risk women under 50. It’s all part of what seems to be Komen’s aggressive role in fostering what has become a multi-billion dollar breast cancer industry. From expensive—and often unneeded—digital mammography to biopsies to chemotherapy that costs tens of thousands of dollars a year, there is a lot of money to be made in testing and treating breast cancer. If that sounds jaded, just take a look at the breast cancer industry’s negative reaction to the more conservative mammography guidelines put out by the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force in 2009.

As I wrote back then; “To summarize…findings, the task force panel determined that the ‘harms’ or risks of yearly mammography screening for women under 50 outweighed its benefits. These risks include anxiety, false positives that lead to surgical biopsies and over-diagnosis (and over-treatment) of precancerous lesions that would never progress or might disappear on their own. The group found that in women 40-49, 1,904 women must be screened for 10 years before one cancer death is prevented. That ratio drops to 1 death prevented for 1,300 women age 50-59 screened, and 1 for 377 for women 60 to 69 years old.” In other words, Komen’s message—spread on every yogurt container, football helmet and banner for a Race For the Cure—is misleading; early detection does not guarantee a cure and in some cases, it can lead to unneeded and harmful treatment.

But to get back to the recent events, I think the Komen group made a serious error in cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood. The decision was the result of a new policy at Komen that prohibits grants to organizations under local, state, or federal investigation. Planned Parenthood, which has been under attack by conservatives who want to cut off all family-planning funding for the organization, is currently the subject of a House investigation spearheaded by Rep. Cliff Stearns, an anti-abortion Republican. This investigation—which has yet to hold hearings—concerns trumped up charges that Planned Parenthood misused public funding for abortion services.

Is it just a coincidence that Planned Parenthood is the only organization to fall victim to this new policy? I think not. Last April, Karen Handel, a Republican who ran for governor of Georgia in 2010 was appointed Komen’s new senior vice president for public policy. During the campaign, Handel announced that if elected, she would cut off state funding for family planning services provided by Planned Parenthood. “Since I am pro-life, I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood,” she wrote on her campaign blog.

John D. Raffaelli, a Komen board member and Washington lobbyist, denies that Handel’s role at Komen had anything to do with the latest decision, but, he did tell the New York Times, that Handel “was hired to urge state governments to spend money on breast cancer screening, and having a Republican deliver that message could help in many states.” Especially if that Republican could guarantee that none of the state money funneled through Komen programs would reach Planned Parenthood.

The anti-abortion message could also bring Komen new support from women aligned with religious and right-to-life groups that have put pressure on Komen to stop supporting Planned Parenthood. They might even gain increased funding from a few corporate partners that espouse a similar agenda. But the long-term repercussions of this new policy of dropping support for groups “under investigation” could backfire. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), a long-term supporter of Komen who recently spoke out against the charity’s decision elaborates: “I suppose when we review NIH and bring them under some investigation that they will stop funding NIH to the tune of $1 million, or I suppose that when we have a pharmaceutical company that we bring to the hill to ask them questions about a particular activity that they will stop accepting sponsor money from that particular pharmaceutical company.”

In reality, the Planned Parenthood incident has created a lot of bad press and bad feelings for a decision Komen had hoped would remain under the radar. Many women apparently agree with Rep. Speier when she said on the House floor, “I have been a big booster of the Susan G. Komen organization, but not anymore.” Planned Parent has fared far better. They initiated a campaign to raise funds for local affiliate screening programs that were lost by the decision and reportedly had $400,000 by mid-afternoon on Wednesday. Texas oil executive Lee Fikes and his wife Amy made a donation of $250,000 to the group for a “Breast Health Emergency Fund. ” Today, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he was personally donating another $250,000: “Politics have no place in health care,” he said in a statement. “Breast cancer screening saves lives and hundreds of thousands of women rely on Planned Parenthood for access to care. We should be helping women access that care, not placing barriers in their way.”

That about says it all.

“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.”

The Komen foundation certainly knows something about raising money.

Right now, Komen

prohibiting grants to organizations under local, state, or federal investigation

What’s interesting is that But Raffaelli, also tells the Times in the next breath that the recent defunding decision makes good business sense for Komen; “For the board, the calculation was simple: ‘You should as a general rule always pick vendors and grantees that will broaden your base of support and not narrow it.” In other words, if Planned Parenthood scares off conservative funders, better to cut support for the nation’s largest provider of care for women than lose money from corporate and ideologically-oriented sources.

And where exactly does Komen get its  funding from?

Dawn Laguens, an executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said that Komen’s money had over the years underwritten breast cancer screenings for 170,000 women, some of whose lives were saved as a result.


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  1. Donna permalink

    Great post! Once again women’s lives and health fall prey to politics! Two steps forward one step back . . .

  2. wkj permalink

    How much of the $350 million in 2008 income actually went to research?

  3. wkj,
    According to their latest annual report, just 24%

  4. maggiemahar permalink


    A great post.

    What is wrong with Komen (and the Komen Foundation) is not simply that they turned on Planned Parnenthood, but the fact that they have always been part of for-profit, money-driven medicine

    .This is not a patient-centered organization; it’s a profit-driven oganization masquerading as a non-profit group…

    As you write here : “the orgnaizaiton,, which created the hugely popular (and profitable) ‘Race for the Cure’ run multi-day walks as well as the ubiquitous “pinkwashing” of products as varied as yogurt containers, running shoes and buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, has always been focused on marketing and fundraising. . . .

    And, as you poiint out in your reply, just 24% of thieir income actually goes to research.

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