What Breast Cancer Advocates Owe to the Abortion Rights Fight

The Susan G. Komen foundation this week got served a reminder that all the women's health causes are an interconnected legacy of the feminist fights of the 1970s.


Looks like the pink ribbon ladies at the Susan G. Komen cancer foundation learned the lesson about politics being a body contact sport. Pulling their cancer screening program from the beleaguered Planned Parenthood under a transparently concocted rule they applied to no one else, the beribboned sisters were flayed to ribbons by a coalition from feminists online to the billionaire Mayor of New York City. How could Komen imperil women's health in a sacrifice to the war on choice? Yesterday they gave as close as it comes in the spin world to an apology, denying any wrongdoing and telling their critics to pipe down. No politics in their decision making, nosirree.

Let's cut through the pink ribbonry. This presentation of the issue completely obscures the real issue: the war on choice itself. Organizations like Americans United for Life, which is heavily involved in the Komen flap, have been waging the war for years without setting off an internet firestorm. What made Komen's move different is that it's supposed to be an organization for women's lives. And like it or not, preserving women's lives is not a stand-alone enterprise entirely divorced from the value of the lives you save. Valuing lives is the business of politics. Valuing women's lives used to be known as feminism. If feminism had not revived the claim that women's lives have value, there would be no breast cancer movement. Why should there be?

Attention to breast cancer, like the availability of abortion to women with unwanted pregnancies, did not come from some Texas Republican whose sister, Susan G. Komen, sadly, died. Before political feminism, breast cancer, like everything having to do with women's reproductive and sexual lives, was hidden, treated as slightly dirty, and not worthy of huge amounts of medical resources. Most people date the change to the 1974 announcement by then-first lady Betty Ford that she had the disease. After Betty, Vice President Rockefeller's wife Happy and the television star Betty Rollin also went public.

Years later, when Betty Ford died, Komen Foundation president Nancy Brinker said that "Betty was very important in my life, to the life of Komen for the Cure and to the world."

Betty Ford supported not only breast cancer awareness but the Equal Rights Amendment, and, throughout her tenure in the White House, abortion rights, a.k.a. the feminism that dares not speak its name. This is not an accident. Abortion, or the ability to control reproduction, including, of course, all methods of birth control, is central to women achieving not mere survival, but flourishing lives. After 40 years of legal abortion, perhaps the Komen flap will enable women and their sympathetic male supporters to remember that it was feminism and the feminist fight to make abortion legal that freed them from the wheel of uncontrolled reproduction, with its attendant impoverishment and, well, abortion, of their hopes and dreams for education and better jobs -- the ordinary markers of a flourishing life.

Others, notably Peggy Orenstein and Barbara Ehrenreich, have brilliantly documented the decline of the breast cancer movement into a parody of conventional femininity, with its pink teddy bears turning women into children and its boobies bracelets turning the site of a life-threatening disease into a sexual turn-on. Why would those bear-hugging boobie-bearers want to do something as aggressive and self-actualizing as, say, get an abortion when they are too young and poor to start a family, or when their family is as big as they can afford?

Social movements come and go. I am hardly the first person to notice that the feminist movement, including a seemingly toothless Planned Parenthood, has gone a long way (baby) from the era of courageous women like Betty Ford. Meanwhile, other movements, like the gay revolution, have shown new pathways to activism that might inspire a revived feminism, should anyone be willing to pay attention. Maybe the Komen flap, by highlighting the incoherence behind caring for women and trying to strip them of control over their reproduction, is just the opening a revived feminist movement has been waiting for.

Image credit: National Archives