The Komen Foundation's Black Eye

By no longer donating to organizations "under investigation" by any federal, state, or local government, the Susan G. Komen Foundation is replacing its pink ribbons with a black list.


Recently, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, whose ubiquitous pink ribbon symbolizes its mission of curing breast cancer, adopted a mysterious rule. They would no longer make bequests for any services to any organization that was "under investigation" by any branch of any federal, state, or local government. Of course Komen is completely free to do whatever it likes. But recent American history contains a powerful warning against letting random legislators determine who gets cut off by their funders. Years ago, when Hollywood screenwriters invoked their constitutional right not to incriminate themselves in front of the red-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee, the private members of the Motion Picture Association put them on a blacklist, never to be employed again. In the years since the McCarthy fever abated, the blacklisting episode has come to be a symbol of political cowardice and wrongdoing. Komen does itself a disservice by replacing the pink ribbon with a black list.

Had anyone been looking, they might have asked why the cancer foundation needed such a rule. After all, how likely is it that a research university or cancer screening provider would attract the attention of the protectors of the public weal? Just before Komen passed its new rule, a passionately anti-abortion Republican congressman, Cliff Stearns, had announced he would be investigating the nationwide cancer-screening service provider Planned Parenthood. Not anything to do with cancer screening of course, but because Americans United for Life had told Rep. Stearns that they suspected the longtime contraceptive pioneer of using some of its federal funding for abortions. And yesterday, Komen pulled the million dollars it gives Planned Parenthood annually for cancer screening. After all, rules are rules.

What if the IRS was looking into a hospital's tax status? Would Komen have to pull their funding too?

Skeptical commentators are speculating that Komen bowed to political pressure. As conservatives increasingly targeted Planned Parenthood in recent months, various organizations explicitly upped the ante with Komen over their support of the non-profit. The Southern Baptists pulled their Pink Bible program, which produced a dollar for Komen with every Bible sold. Last April, Komen hired as vice president for public policy Karen Handel, a failed Republican candidate with a long online history of hostility to Planned Parenthood and contraception in general. And then it enacted its new rule.

The skepticism is further fueled by the weirdness of a rule letting any city council member or random state legislator decide to defund a Komen grantee just by starting an "investigation." The Department of HHS rejected Stearns' invitation to look into Planned Parenthood months ago, and, even if he were dead on, Stearns isn't suggesting there's something wrong with Planned Parenthood's cancer screening. What if the IRS was looking into a hospital's tax status? Or almost any member of the Arizona legislature was worrying that an in-state facility with Komen money was harboring illegal immigrants? Would Komen have to pull their funding too?

In a ghastly coincidence, the same day Komen pulled the money from Planned Parenthood because Stearns thought they were spending federal funds on abortions, the Journal of the America Medical Association published a damning study that almost half of women receiving second surgeries after lumpectomies didn't need the procedure. Painful, disfiguring, unnecessary surgery. At least three of the four sites studied in the JAMA report -- the University of Vermont, Kaiser Permanente Colorado, and the Marshfield Clinic -- has a relationship with the Komen Foundation. Kaiser Permanente is a "corporate campaign partner," the University of Vermont received a research grant, the Central Wisconsin Komen affiliate sponsors programs at the Marshfield Clinic. Maybe Komen should concentrate their granting criteria on whether the recipients are actually helping cancer patients.

Image: Joshua Roberts / Reuters