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7 Lessons From Komen-Gate: What the Komen Controversy Taught Us About Race, Class and Cancer

Keli Goff

Author, Commentator  and Contributing Editor, Posted: 02/ 6/2012 7:57 pm

All of us have survived the awkwardness of a friend’s breakup or divorce and having to endure the inevitable social pressure to choose sides. Perhaps the only thing more awkward than telling one friend that you won’t be attending his upcoming wedding to the woman he left your other friend for is choosing sides only to find out that against all odds, your friends are actually reconciling, and every horrible thing you said to one about the other, like, “I always thought you were too good for him anyway,” the formerly soon-to-be-ex now knows.

Welcome to the world of those of us who care about women’s health.

It’s been a whirlwind week for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, Planned Parenthood and any woman or man who cares about both organizations. The Komen Foundation’s initial withdrawal of funding from Planned Parenthood, the ensuing backlash and subsequent reversal and reconciliation has left many reeling. For some, the end result means the matter is resolved and it is simply time to move on. Others feel as though healing is not that easy, and they’ve been left with post-traumatic stress disorder, philanthropic edition. Regardless of where you stand on the issue — and which member of the couple you took sides with during this trial separation — there are lessons all of us who care about women’s health and social change can glean from this saga. A few of them are below. Feel free to weigh in with your own in the comments section.

7. Despite a complicated history, wealthy white women and poor minority women know that we are all in this together.

Wealthy white women and poor women of color have a complex history. Since our nation’s inception, white women of means have relied on poor women of color to help them keep their homes and care for their families. (Some of my own family members did just that.) As stories like The Help have reminded us, such relationships have bred empathy and unbreakable bonds across barriers of race and class among some, while fueling resentment among others. These resentments burst into the open during the feminist movement when many women of color, who had struggled to find a place within the civil rights movement where they encountered sexism, felt equally excluded from the mainstream feminist movement because of racism and classism. Komen-gate briefly reopened old wounds. Watching Komen founder Nancy Brinker, a former ambassador with the Bush administration, trying desperately to undo one of the worst philanthropic PR implosions in recent memory while decked out in her crisp suits, expensive jewelry and perfectly coifed hair, it was hard not see a woman who has probably never thought about how her maid pays for her breast exams. Luckily, there were plenty of other powerful, educated women who do think about such things, and who recognized that when it comes to women’s health we’re all in this together. Those women made their voices heard, online and with their wallets, and because of them more low-income women — many of them of color — will continue to receive the lifesaving healthcare that they need. 6. Women’s health is not a women’s issue.

Women’s health issues are often talked about in the media and in the world of politics as if they only matter to women. But for every female activist, legislator and voter whose life has been touched by a gender specific health scare, be it breast cancer or a high-risk pregnancy, there is a man whose life they have touched. Many of those men came out in full force this week, among them Mayor Michael Bloomberg whose $250,000 matching pledge to Planned Parenthood inspired the Livestrong Foundation, founded by cycling legend and cancer-survivor Lance Anrmstrong, to pledge $100,000 to the organization. 5. Cancer doesn’t care what color you are, or how much money you have, but plenty of politicians do.

The timing was oddly apropos. The same week that Mitt Romney declared that he’s “not concerned about the very poor,” because they enjoy “safety nets,” the Komen controversy reminded us that those so-called safety nets don’t catch everybody when they fall. Black women are statistically more likely to die from breast cancer than other women due to the disease often being caught later. Early detection is key, but when you are poor preventative medical care is a luxury, and race is still very much intertwined with the politics of poverty in our country. What I find confusing is that many of the same politicians who oppose funding for Planned Parenthood also oppose universal healthcare reform. I thought part of the rationale for opposing universal healthcare was the belief that private organizations should step in to fill the void of government when it comes to addressing the needs of the needy. Isn’t that precisely what Planned Parenthood was doing by providing breast cancer screenings to low income-women? Groups like Planned Parenthood literally save lives, which brings me to number 4… 4. Planned Parenthood is not an abortion group.

Planned Parenthood and it’s supporters will likely look back on the last few days as among the most important — and empowering — in the nearly century old organization’s existence. Not only has the Komen controversy provided Planned Parenthood with a fundraising bonanza (it raised $3 million dollars since the Komen news first became public) but it provided the group with something much more valuable: the kind of public relations money can’t buy. For years, Planned Parenthood has been losing the messaging war to conservatives, intent on depicting it as nothing more than a well-oiled killing machine. (Sen. Jon Kyl famously, or rather infamously, accused Planned Parenthood of spending 90 percent of its services on abortion. The real figure is 3 percent but that fact didn’t matter to many.) I had family members who thought that Planned Parenthood was synonymous with abortion. Not any more. Now thanks to Komen-gate everyone and their mother — literally — know that Planned Parenthood is just what it has always proclaimed itself to be: a women’s health organization, helping women to address their reproductive needs, and to receive lifesaving exams to help protect them from breast cancer. 3. Men in power that use birth control when they need it see nothing wrong with using their power to deprive women in need from using it.

When I found out that Sen. David Vitter was among the elected officials spearheading the investigation into Planned Parenthood that was blamed for the Komen Foundation’s initial plans to terminate grants to the organization, I thought I was reading a headline from The Onion. In case you have forgotten, Sen. Vitter was enmeshed in a sex scandal involving a prostitute (at least I think it was “a prostitute,” for all I know it could have been several) and let’s just say firsthand accounts, courtesy of the escort service, make it clear that Vitter very much believes in using contraception. Apparently men in power trying to avoid political scandal should have easy access to contraception. It’s just poor women, reliant on groups like Planned Parenthood, who shouldn’t. Vitter is not alone in his thinking. Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich condemned the Obama administration’s ruling to make contraception available to all women, regardless of who their employer is, under the new healthcare law. Of course, the obvious question that leaves many of us with is, did he feel that way years ago, when his current wife/then-girlfriend Callista was in childbearing years, he was married to someone else and leading the charge to investigate the president for a scandal stemming from an affair. I don’t know the answer but he or his campaign representatives are welcome to weigh in with a response in the comments below.

Click here to see the top two lessons.

Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate and a Contributing Editor to where this piece originally appeared.

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