The Komen Controversy: Planned Parenthood Claims a New Kind of Victory in the Culture War

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Following a press conference by Washington state Senator Patty Murray, Planned Parenthood supporters hold up signs at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Seattle on Feb. 3, 2012

When the history of Facebook-enabled activism is written, the backlash against the Susan G. Komen foundation’s decision to end grants to Planned Parenthood clinics will fall somewhere behind the Arab Spring and ahead of the effort to get Betty White to host Saturday Night Live. The Betty White campaign took months; the Komen foundation reversed its stand after just four days of scathing Facebook updates.

This is what social-media anger looks like: a pink graphic with the words “Still Standing with Planned Parenthood” and an arrow pointing to the user’s photo, posted with the righteous force of a click.

(MORE: Planned Parenthood Credits Social Media for Publicizing Its Position Against Komen Foundation)

By the end of last week, Komen had decided that Planned Parenthood could apply for future grants to provide breast-cancer detection and education. But having raised in a matter of days five times the $600,000 that it stood to lose in grant funds, Planned Parenthood isn’t going to need Komen’s money anytime soon.

The backlash against Komen, and its subsequent reversal, wasn’t a given. While the Komen episode generated an immediate response by Planned Parenthood’s supporters, legislative attacks against the organization last year resulted in barely a social-media peep. When a dozen states proposed banning all funding to the abortion-and-health-care provider — and those bans became law in at least five states — no one started a Twitter campaign to lobby state legislatures. And when a congressional effort to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funds nearly shut down the government, the Facebook group Don’t Let Congress Defund Planned Parenthood attracted a whopping 30 Likes.

Why did Komen’s decision galvanize pro–abortion rights Americans while much more substantial efforts to financially starve Planned Parenthood failed to register? The most obvious answer is that breast cancer is a far less polarizing issue than abortion, or even birth control. Support for abortion rights doesn’t generate the energy it once did in the U.S. because the women who came of age around the time of the Roe v. Wade decision are past their childbearing years and the women who are now in their reproductive prime have never known a world in which abortion was illegal. In the case of breast cancer, however, those early abortion-rights activists now include many breast-cancer survivors — and friends of those who have died from breast cancer. And many of the younger women have watched their mothers and aunts fight the disease.

(MORE: Planned Parenthood Responds to Komen Reversal)

MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who announced last September that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, was the first journalist to interview Komen founder Nancy Brinker, and Mitchell introduced the segment by noting that she was “expressing the anger of a lot of people,” including herself. As Mitchell later told Politico, “It’s hard to explain when you’ve lost someone to breast cancer and then run with that person’s name on your T-shirt, how determined you are, holding back your tears.” Mitchell has been involved with Komen for years and said she remembered “as a very young woman running, having just lost my closest friend, and knowing that I was running that race for her. It kept me going.”

However, the reaction went beyond the instinct to protect more women from breast cancer. The outpouring of support for Planned Parenthood was not as visceral as the anger at the Komen foundation. For those who have donated to the group and participated in Race for the Cure and worn pink ribbons or purchased pink-colored anything through Komen’s many sponsors, the decision to revoke grants to Planned Parenthood felt like a betrayal.

Perhaps the closest comparison is when lovers of Chick-fil-A’s fried-chicken sandwiches discovered that the restaurant chain had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to groups that oppose gay marriage. As one Komen sponsor told the Washington Post, “It’s unsettling to think you’re supporting one thing and then it changes.” Komen supporters thought they had woken up to find that their beloved pink-ribbon standard-bearer had become a conservative antiabortion institution.

The episode also made explicit an argument Planned Parenthood has consistently marshaled as it fought state and federal efforts to deny the organization access to funding for birth control. Its clinics, Planned Parenthood insists, provide women with care that goes beyond reproductive health. The headlines announcing that Planned Parenthood was losing grants from the Komen foundation legitimized Planned Parenthood’s role as a health care provider for low-income women.

(MORE: How Will Komen’s Split with Planned Parenthood Affect Women’s Health?)

Conservatives quickly recognized this threat to their efforts to paint Planned Parenthood as “an abortion factory,” and they jumped to point out that most Planned Parenthood clinics don’t provide mammograms on-site and instead refer women to outside clinics. In a statement released after Komen backed off its initial decision, Ralph Reed of the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition charged that “Planned Parenthood put politics ahead of women’s health” and alleged that it “does not offer mammography services to women.”

Planned Parenthood clinics are hardly the only Komen grant recipients to serve as a middle (wo)man, offering manual breast exams by nurse practitioners, and then subsidizing the mammograms of women whom they send elsewhere for the procedure. And it takes some contortions to argue that the end result — free or highly subsidized breast-cancer detection for women who otherwise might not receive it — does not benefit women’s health.

Now that Komen has reversed its position and vowed to continue considering Planned Parenthood clinics for grants, antiabortion activists are crying foul about Planned Parenthood’s “bullying” of Komen. Likewise, Planned Parenthood did not hesitate to label Komen’s initial decision the result of pressure from antiabortion groups, despite a lack of evidence for that charge. Both sides in the culture war used the episode to raise funds for their causes and to demonize their opponents. But ultimately this showdown didn’t tell us anything about the culture war or abortion. It proved instead that women will rally to the cause of fighting breast cancer. Because there’s still no cure.

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