(Editor’s note: A correction has been made to this story since it was posted. A correction will also be published in the Feb. 16 Chronicle.)
Jewish supporters of the Susan G. Komen Foundation were left dismayed and wary last week after the organization announced its plan to pull the plug on funding to Planned Parenthood, then quickly reversed its decision following massive protests.
Those protests poured in to the self-described “global leader of the breast cancer movement” through online petitions, phone calls and posts on social networks.
Its initial decision to cut off Planned Parenthood was seen as an effort to avoid problems with some of its donors. Planned Parenthood is currently under a congressional investigation, launched by U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), for allegedly using government money to fund abortions.
Breast cancer research has been a cause widely supported by Jewish women, perhaps, in part, because those of Ashkenazi descent are many times more likely than the general population to have a common gene mutation that can be a predictor for the disease.
Many support Planned Parenthood because it provides education about breast care to low-income women, and connects them to resources to help them get biopsies, ultrasounds, and mammograms.
The Pittsburgh office of the National Council of Jewish Women was “deluged with e-mails and phone calls” from members upset with Komen’s initial decision, said Christine Stone, the NCJW’s state policy advocacy chair in Pennsylvania.
Concerned that Komen is “feeding into a dangerous trend, where women’s health issues — even preventative efforts — are being attached to a political agenda, where anti-choice influences are being used to de-rail these partnerships,” Stone said last week’s controversy has shaken her trust in the organization.
“Now we will just wait and see if Komen really does continue its relationship with Planned Parenthood,” she said. “We’ll be wary.”
It was the NCJW that first brought the Komen Race for the Cure to Pittsburgh in 1992.
“The NCJW had a big stake in bringing [the Race for the Cure] here,” Stone said. “Now we have a voice in being disappointed, and trepidation going forward.”
Karen Wolk Feinstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, which was the Race for the Cure’s first funder in Pittsburgh, was dismayed that Komen attached itself to an issue as politicized as abortion.
“What does this subject have to do with breast cancer screenings, early intervention, and best practice treatment?” Feinstein said in an emailed statement to the Chronicle. “How did Komen get itself into this public relations debacle? Now, both sides of the ‘choice’ debate are furious. What has Komen achieved to advance women’s health in this heated discussion? Nancy Brinker (founder and CEO of Komen) is responsible for a serious breach of philanthropic responsibility to allow this mission creep to muddy the good work that the regional Races have performed. It was totally unnecessary. Komen’s reputation for credibility and public trust has been seriously damaged, and Planned Parenthood’s financial status remarkably helped as donations pour in support.”
As a result of its recent decisions, the JHF wil be either decreasing or ceasing its funding to Komen, according to Feinstein.
While recognizing the “decades of good work and leadership” of Brinker, Barbara Weinstein, legislative director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said she was “deeply disappointed at the initial decision to disqualify Planned Parenthood for funding.”
Just this past December, the Union for Reform Judaism honored Brinker with the Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award, the Reform movement’s highest honor.
“Part of our concern is based on the good work Planned Parenthood does with screening low-income women for breast cancer,” Weinstein said.
Also of concern to the RAC was that the standard Komen had created in disqualifying grant recipients “left them open to more politicization rather than less,” Weinstein said. “Any member of Congress could have opened an investigation that could disqualify lots of non-profits.”
Weinstein said the RAC would be keeping an eye on how Komen deals with Planned Parenthood and other non-profits in the future.
“We’re looking forward to seeing how this (the revised policy) gets applied in a practical sense,” Weinstein said. “We are eager to see how the funding actually shakes out in the future.”
Hadassah has also taken a stand against the politicization of women’s health issues after last week’s firestorm.
“Hadassah … is pleased that the women’s health community is returning to a consensus policy of non-politicization of our work,” wrote Marcie Natan, national president of Hadassah, in a prepared statement. “Our attention to the issues we deal with together — improving breast health, raising awareness of breast cancer symptoms, funding breast cancer screening, treatment and most importantly, research for a cure, and ensuring that those women who are the most vulnerable in our community have access to life-saving health services — simply cannot be inhibited by politics … . Hadassah is proud to continue our longstanding role as an advocate for a woman’s right to choose and a strong supporter in the advancement of women’s health … . Komen should never again allow this type of controversy to erode the integrity of its well-known and much-admired name in fundraising for breast cancer treatment research and awareness.”
While Komen has backtracked in its stance toward Planned Parenthood, the charity’s vice president for public policy, Karen Handel, resigned on Tuesday.
Handel was instrumental in the organization’s adoption of its initial decision to de-fund Planned Parenthood.
Handel told Komen officials that she supported the decision to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood, according to the Associated Press. She said the discussion to de-fund the organization began prior to her arrival at Komen, and was approved at its highest levels.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)