let's race for the revolution, instead
[audio here] The Komen Foundation's recent decision to pull its funding from Planned Parenthood was not an aberration, and not unrelated to the recent conflict over the need for health insurance plans to cover contraception. Both, of course, constitute attacks on women's reproductive rights. But we can also understand those attacks, and the other problems with the Komen Foundation's approach to breast cancer, as part of a larger wave of neoliberalism.
On February first, Komen for the Cure, which bills itself as "the global leader in the breast cancer movement," said it would cut off funding for Planned Parenthood to screen poor and working women for breast cancer. Over the past five years, Planned Parenthood, using funds donated by Komen, has provided over 170,000 clinical breast exams and 6,400 mammograms at clinics across the nation. Planned Parenthood is one of the few providers that offers screening services at little to no cost in rural and remote areas, and it is often the sole provider of reproductive health services to women without insurance.
Under neoliberal capitalism, issues of health, illness, and other matters of caretaking, are individualized and privatized, as shared resources are withdrawn from public services and women are coerced into family roles. The neoconservative movement to enforce gender conformity and women's subordination dovetails with the neoliberal agenda of cutting social programs and shifting responsibility to individuals.
The Obama administration has allowed for contraception to be paid directly by insurance companies instead of by catholic-affiliated employers, an accommodation that potentially continues what Jodi Jacobson of RH Reality Check has called "the stigmatization and 'separation' of contraception and [other] health care." Still, some conservatives are not satisfied, and Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri is expected to offer an amendment that would permit any employer or insurance plan to exclude any health service, no matter how essential, from coverage if they morally object to it. This means, I suppose, that if your employer is a Jehovah's Witness, for instance, they would not need to pay for your blood transfusions. If they're Christian Scientist, well….
On one level, this appears to be an attempt to eviscerate the already flawed Affordable Care Act by any means possible. It also further undermines the notion of collective risk on which insurance pools are based. Of course, the largest possible pool would be the entire nation, as in a national, single-payer health service. But that would undermine the possibility of making a profit from people's illnesses.
The attacks on reproductive justice also of course work to divide citizens along ideological lines, and some have speculated that the Komen Foundation's move reflects a need to provide payback to their right wing sponsors. But the controversy has brought to light the ways that Komen already functions like, and supports, other corporations: a point also made in the Portland International Film Festival entry Pink Ribbons, Inc., playing next week.
Although Komen Vice President Karen Handel resigned, and the Foundation announced that Planned Parenthood would be eligible to apply for future funding for breast care, there are plenty of other indications that women's health is not the Foundation's real focus.
The organization's salary structure is top-heavy with six-figure compensation packages for executives. Only 16% of the Foundation's revenue goes to actual research on breast cancer. Much of the rest is spent on brand preservation efforts, such as suing smaller nonprofits for infringing on their use of the term "the Cure." The Komen foundation also engages in what the group Breast Cancer Action calls "pinkwashing": providing cover for corporations that contribute to or profit from the cancer epidemic. The director of Breast Cancer Action appeared last week on KBOO's Bread and Roses, and detailed their Think Before You Pink campaign. Komen's biggest sponsors include corporations that contribute to cancer rates and profit from cancer treatments.
Moreover, Komen has lobbied against public funding of health care and has worked to obscure the environmental causes of breast and other cancers. In the 1960s the incidence of breast cancer in the US was 1 in 20; today it is 1 in 8. Women residing in areas with toxic waste sites have 6.5 times the normal risk for breast cancer. Women with the highest concentration of certain organochlorines in their bodies have 4-10 times the risk of women with lower levels.
But hey, the Race for the Cure raises awareness and celebrates heroic survivors, right?
Well, thirty or forty years ago breast cancer was a taboo subject, but that's hardly the chief problem now. In addition, as Barbara Ehrenreich notes in her excoriation of what she calls the "breast cancer cult," "the mindless triumphalism of 'survivorhood' denigrates the dead and the dying. Did we who live 'fight' harder than those who've died?" she asks. "Can we claim to be 'braver,' better, people than the dead?"
How different would the Race for the Cure be if its focus were not on commemorating the dead and celebrating the survivors, but on cleaning up the environment so that fewer of us will get cancers of various kinds. As sociologist Lochlann Jain asks, what would it be like if it were a race not for the cure but against environmental toxins.
But that systemic approach—like the idea of single payer health care –would move us away from the individualist focus that helps line the pockets –or the stock portfolios—of those who cause and profit from cancer.
As many have noted, the outpouring of support for Planned Parenthood in response to Komen's actions suggests the possibility for a renewed movement for women's health and reproductive justice. But when we stand with Planned Parenthood, we must defend all of its services, including abortion, because abortion access is a crucial part of women's health care. We must demand comprehensive, shame-free, accessible health care for everyone.
For The Old Mole Variety Hour February 13, 2012