Much has been written about the Susan G Komen for the Cure Foundation vs. Planned Parenthood vs. breast cancer screening PR disaster. Was the decision to pull funding from Planned Parenthood a political one in the fight against abortion? Was Komen just trying to protect its brand and the money of so many women who contribute annually because of an ongoing investigation into Planned Parenthood? Was it a move to advance the far right’s larger efforts to cut women off from reproductive health care, especially for those who can’t afford it on their own because they lack health insurance?
This is a story that isn’t going away anytime soon, even though I’m sure Komen never thought in a million years that women would react as viscerally as they have. And that’s why the Komen Foundation is probably finished, because they misjudged their constituency. Not understanding the motivations of supporters is a death knell for any organization.
But the real story in this whole fiasco is one that most have missed — the role that women in online and social media had, and continue to have, in bringing attention to a story that Komen must have believed would go relatively unnoticed because the amount of money involved was such a small portion of Planned Parenthood’s annual budget.
The fight against breast cancer is supremely personal in a way many other causes are not. A true sisterhood was born around this one medical issue and the bonds of that sisterhood have only grown and become stronger over time. Women across the country have come together in support of each other to raise awareness for the need to fund the research for a breast cancer cure. We’ve walked together in pink t-shirts and we’ve taken money out of otherwise tight family budgets to donate to “the cure.”
This sisterhood exists not only in real life, but in the virtual world, as well. And as anyone who is the least bit social media savvy knows, women rule online spaces. In the last few years, those women have created powerful brands and successful businesses out of knowing how to leverage those tools for maximum effect. How any organization could have failed to foresee that tech-savvy women, who are the same ones who’ve been their primary supporters, wouldn’t use those same tools to fight back on behalf of loved ones who need the screening and preventive care services Planned Parenthood offers, is about the biggest corporate communications failure I’ve witnessed for a long time.
Women felt betrayed and they had the tools and presence to do something about it.
Facebook and Twitter lit up with users speaking out against Komen’s decision, encouraging people to stop giving money to Komen and take it to other breast cancer organizations. Women announced they would stop “buying pink.” (The issue of pink-washing is another story for another day). And Beth Kanter, one of the leading authorities of how non-profit organizations can use social media effectively, created the “Komen Can Kiss My Mammogram” board on Pinterest.
Whether Komen was actually using dollars for breast cancer screenings as a political pawn in the war against abortion and women’s reproductive rights, we may never know for sure (though according to at least one report, Komen’s VP for public policy, who is staunchly anti-abortion, was one person behind Komen’s plan to ditch Planned Parenthood.) But in some ways, it doesn’t really matter now. Komen has offended its base and there may be no fix for that.
I doubt there is a woman on the planet who doesn’t know someone who’s had breast cancer. My grandmother had breast cancer. My best friend died of breast cancer. And a good and wonderful friend Susan Niebur — a planetary scientist, mother of two, author of the blog Toddler Planet and known as “@whymommy” on Twitter — has been a graceful and eloquent advocate for her particular form of breast cancer. Susan is in hospice and the people whose lives she has touched have been sending their good thoughts and prayers to her through virtual cards being produced by her friend Amy aka TeachMama.
When an organization uses the lives of our friends and families as political fodder, we don’t take kindly to that. And we know how to raise a ruckus. And we’re not afraid to do that in the name of good people who aren’t statistics, but who are important parts of our lives. For those of us for whom this is personal, it doesn’t matter that the amount of money the Komen Foundation wanted to pull from Planned Parenthood was only a small part of that group’s annual budget. What matters is the message it sent — that keeping political benefactors happy was more important than even one woman’s life.
As one person pointed out to me, the Komen Foundation can do whatever it wants with its money and give it to whichever organizations it believes advances its agenda. And that’s true. But as others have said, “Susan G. Komen is dead to me,” and “I’ll never give the Komen Foundation another dime.” I suspect a great majority of Komen supporters will find those other organizations in a hurry. I know I have.
UPDATE: After I wrote this post, Susan Niebur passed away. She is much loved and was a valiant spirit. For those who are interested, please consider donations to the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation.