Over the past few days, we have witnessed another passionate struggle in the battle that has been fought since at least 1916: the politicization of women health. In October 1916, Margaret Sanger was arrested in for opening her Brownsville birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York. Nearly a century later, Sanger’s organization Planned Parenthood is at the epicenter of the continued struggle for women’s control over their own bodies. The controversy around the relationship between Planned Parenthood and the Susan G.Komen Foundation For the Cure unfolds on websites rather than street corners, but the stakes are the same. While we have come a long way from Brownsville, women’s rights to their bodies are still under threat.
On January 31, the Komen Foundation, the world’s leading breast-cancer advocacy group, announced a decision to cut its funding to Planned Parenthood, an organization founded by Sanger that offers family planning services to over five million women and men worldwide. The funding from the Komen Foundation (about $600,000 annually) permitted Planned Parenthood to offer free breast cancer screenings to its patients. The decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood ostensibly came in the wake of a new policy change that prohibited the Foundation from donating money to any organization under investigation by the Federal Government. It does not take much research, however, to see that these new policies were an excuse to de-legitimize and cut ties with Planned Parenthood. The federal investigation into Planned Parenthood was opened by anti-choice congressmen into the Federation’s abortion policies only and has not led to any charges. The new president of the Komen Foundation, Karen Handel, who oversaw the policy changes, has a legacy of anti-choice and anti-Planned Parenthood crusading. More evidence that the policy changes were intended to specifically target Planned Parenthood? The prohibition has not stopped the Komen Foundation from funding $7.5 million worth of cancer research at Penn State, an institution which is currently the subject of a federal investigation regarding the former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who is indicted on multiple accounts of child sex abuse.
Women’s health has always been at the center of Margaret Sanger’s vision. In a public radio address in 1937, Sanger reiterated birth control’s importance to mothers’ health :
“Out of every three women who die from causes related to childbearing, two could have been saved. Too frequent and too many pregnancies are responsible for a large number of these preventable deaths. And abortion, that tragic substitute for reliable birth control, is the cause of 25 per cent of maternal deaths.”
As Sanger’s organization expanded, so did their services to women’s health. From the 1920s, when the first birth control clinics opened their doors, doctors at Planned Parenthood were often the first to detect ovarian and cervical cancer in female patients. Today cancer screenings, including breast exams, have become an essential part of Planned Parenthood : in 2010 the organization was able to offer 750,000 breast exams, many of which were made possible by the Komen Foundation. By refusing to continue to fund these exams, the Foundation bowed to the interests of anti-abortion advocates who criticized its relationship with Planned Parenthood. In doing so, Komen has compromised on its commitment to women’s health services. This affront especially affects low-income and uninsured women for whom Planned Parenthood is one of the only options for affordable women’s health services. The war against Planned Parenthood is, at its heart, a war against poor women’s bodies. Elite women like the Foundation’s president Karen Handel and founder Nancy Brinker will always have access private doctors for their women’s health needs. Much of Planned Parenthood’s clientele, however, does not have that same level of privilege.
The Komen Foundation’s announcement has provoked unprecedented public outrage. Politicians, bloggers, and media outlets have denounced the politicization of women’s health. Donations to Planned Parenthood flooded in: the organization has received more than one million dollars in the past few days from supporters eager to see women’s health services continue. The Komen Foundation has also reported a 100% increase in donations in the past few days. But just a few hours ago, responding to public pressure, the Komen Foundation declared that it reversed the controversial decision to de-fund Planned Parenthood. Hopefully the temporary break in ties between these two organizations was just a lapse in judgement on the part of Komen’s leaders. Sanger’s commitment to accessible women’s health care prevails, for now. But the controversy has reminded us anew the importance of being vigilant in protecting the rights that Sanger and her successors dedicated their lives to securing.