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The Truth Behind the Ribbon

News & Features | February 20, 2012
by Katherine Sawyer

 

By now, most of America, or at the very least most of the women I know at Tufts, have heard about The Komen Foundation’s decision to cut funding from Planned Parenthood. The news sparked national criticism, an influx of donations in support of the organization, a matching gift donated by Mayor Bloomberg, and finally, a reversal of the funding cut, all culminating in the resignation of Komen’s senior official, Karen Handel. However, the story is not quite over; the incident sheds light on women’s ongoing struggle to protect  their basic health and reproductive rights.

 

On January 31, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the leading breast cancer charity in America, broke ties with Planned Parenthood. The grants they revoked, which provided $680,000 last year and $580,000 the year before, funded nearly 170,000 of the 750,000 clinical breast exams Planned Parenthood provides each year, according to The New York Times. Planned Parenthood cites anti-abortion issues as the motivation behind the move. Komen responded that it slashed funds because Planned Parenthood was under investigation by Congress. The organization is currently being examined by a conservative Republican representative, who is backed by anti-abortion groups.

 

Komen’s decision to revoke funding to Planned Parenthood received massive backlash. Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Jackie Speier, both California Democrats, spoke out against the decision. Barbara Boxer condemned Komen for revoking funding for essential women’s health services and falling trap to “a political witch hunt by House Republicans.” Speier announced on the House floor that she was no longer a Komen supporter.

 

Social media also played a huge role in the media firestorm that ensued. Facebook users flocked to the Komen Foundation page to post their feelings about the move and urge the foundation to retract their statement. Planned Parenthood also used the Internet to their advantage, circulating petitions in support of their organization and calling for donations to replace lost funds. In fact, the very first day after Komen announced its decision, Planned Parenthood received nearly $400,000 from about 6,000 donors.

 

Mayor Bloomberg added to the mounting sum of donations with the announcement that he would match every dollar donated to Planned Parenthood, up to $250,000. Bloomberg made his position on Komen’s move very clear. “Politics have no place in health care,” he said in a statement. “Breast cancer screening saves lives, and hundreds of thousands of women rely on Planned Parenthood for access to care. We should be helping women access that care, not placing barriers in their way.” Planned Parenthood has raised nearly $6 million in donations since the Komen incident.

 

In response to explosive media and Internet backlash, Komen Vice President Karen Handel resigned, and Komen founder Nancy Brinker nationally apologized for attempting to cut ties with Planned Parenthood. She said in a statement, “Our only goal for our granting process is to support women and families in the fight against breast cancer. Amending our criteria will ensure that politics has no place in our grant process.” While not promising to renew Planned Parenthood grants, Komen did agree to continue funding existing grants and make the organization eligible for future ones. Most importantly, however, Komen acknowledged the wrongfulness of its actions.

 

Every aspect of this mishap is important in the context of the abortion debate. The fact that Congress can investigate a charity based on the interests of an anti-abortion group and the fact that Komen chose as VP a former gubernatorial candidate who proposed cutting Planned Parenthood funding are issues that need to be addressed. We must also acknowledge the role Planned Parenthood’s millions of supporters played in revitalizing the organization. Most importantly, though, is the information that has been least publicized —what Planned Parenthood actually does and why an organization that offers basic health services to millions of women is perpetually blacklisted.

 

Parenthood provides necessary healthcare services to many men and women nationwide, who may not have access to any other form of healthcare. They provide breast exams, pap smears, colposcopies, pelvic exams, and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. Ninety-seven percent of the services they provide are basic healthcare practices; abortions constitute less than 3% of the organization’s national activity. Planned Parenthood also offers other birth-related services, including prenatal care, vasectomies, and adoption referrals. Planned Parenthood does not randomly hand out abortions; instead, it helps women make informed, educated, and healthy decisions about their reproductive rights and offers them the services that they need.

 

Secretary of Tufts Voices for Choice (VOX) Lily Black reinforces Planned Parenthood’s paramount impact on today’s healthcare system. “These aren’t just absolute resources; they are very limited and affect people in poverty. The lower part of our country is dependent on these services. If we keep attacking Planned Parenthood and limiting these resources, there will be many more issues that come up in the end.”

 

Along with its range of critical services, it is important to understand the role that Planned Parenthood plays in the lives of thousands of uninsured women across the country. Because the organization provides basic medical services, many women without health insurance consider Planned Parenthood physicians their primary doctors. Over one-third of people who use Planned Parenthood’s services make less than $50 a week. Planned Parenthood’s main focus is ensuring women’s health. Period.

 

Another important issue this incident brings to light is the growing politicization of women’s health and reproductive rights. The Komen Foundation’s move drew national attention to the complex web of politics that dictates Planned Parenthood funding and women’s reproductive rights. Each of the 2012 Republican presidential candidates has proposed legislation that would restrict a woman’s access to birth control, along with her ability to make independent decisions regarding reproductive health.

 

Although Planned Parenthood does not receive government funding for abortions, these candidates are so eager to appease the anti-abortionist far right that they are willing to cut vital funding for essential women’s health practices. In Mississippi last year, Mitt Romney supported Amendment 26, or the “personhood amendment,” which would have banned abortion and some forms of birth control by giving fetuses legal rights as people. Rick Santorum believes that a woman should not have an abortion even if conception results from rape. In fact, he doesn’t believe in any form of birth control at all.

 

“I think it’s really scary because those words could only get put into actions later and will only further instill these ideas among Americans,” said Black. “This is a legitimate concern.”

 

According to Black, politicizing these types of issues can reinforce negative stereotypes linked to abortion and women’s health. “ I think that we often think that people who get abortions weren’t on birth control, or didn’t take necessary precautions. But there are a lot of people who have abortions regularly who are of very different  backgrounds—even protesters of abortions themselves. When this issue enters the political sphere, it further confirms people’s belief that abortion is restricted to bad or irresponsible people, and this is not the reality of the situation.”

 

This whole ordeal has once again highlighted the fragility of women’s reproductive health and rights. Being aware of these issues and the role politics plays in women’s health rights is important, but it is not enough. If you care about a woman’s right to control her own body, you should support Planned Parenthood. If you believe in safe, educated sex, you should support Planned Parenthood. Even if you are anti-abortion, you should support Planned Parenthood. And let me tell you why: the planning, education, and contraceptive services Planned Parenthood provides do more to reduce the number of abortions in this country than anything the Pro-Choice movement does.

 

We, as young Americans, the voice of the next generation and an extremely powerful voting coalition, need to show that we will stand up for women’s basic reproductive health rights. Abstinence-only education and lack of access to birth control are vestiges of the past. We should educate the next generation about safe sex and family planning, telling them that abortion is a safe and accessible option.

 

“We should talk to other people about these issues,” urges Black. “Go to VOX’s Facebook page, briefly skim some of the articles, and get inspired. Go to a meeting at VOX (Tuesdays 10-11 p.m. in the Women’s Center), and tell people about their rights and where to get help for any sexually health related concerns. You’ll feel more informed and realize that your own rights might be jeopardized.”

 

This ordeal is rooted in Congress’ right to investigate Planned Parenthood based on the special interests of an anti-abortion group. Our generation needs to tell Congress and the Republican presidential candidates that we will fight for the right to plan our lives and make our own decisions about sex. We need to stand up to those politicians who think they somehow have the right to control what happens in a woman’s uterus.

 

And the thing is—we have the power to do this. One of the most important lessons of this debacle is that public outcry forced Komen to recant its decision to cut Planned Parenthood funding and even apologize. We pushed back and we won.

 

This is not an anomaly; the abortion debate rages on. But regardless of stance on abortion, those in favor of safe, well-planned, and educational sexual health policy appear to be winning. Amendment 26 did not pass in Mississippi because even many anti-abortionists agreed that the bill could be dangerous for women’s reproductive health. Roe vs. Wade still stands. Not unchallenged, not necessarily supported by millions of Americans and policy makers, but it still stands. In this ever-growing debate, I urge all of you to not think along the lines of Pro-Choice versus Pro-Life, or pro-abortion versus anti-abortion. Instead, I encourage you to advocate for safe sexual health and family planning options. To me, that doesn’t seem like a very hard call.

 

“The system is changing before our eyes,” said Black. “These are basic, fundamental rights that every person should have, and we cannot lose sight of that.”