The Politics of Breast Cancer
Editor's note: This is not today's only article on Komen and Planned Parenthood. In addition to our news report, you might also enjoy Albert Mohler's argument that there is "no neutral ground when it Comes to Planned Parenthood," Mollie Ziegler Hemingway's look at "The Komen Fiasco's Silver Lining," and Russell Moore's warning on "the wrong lessons to draw from the Komen-Planned Parenthood debacle."
The eruption of controversy around the Komen Foundation's decision to not renew its funding of Planned Parenthood and their stunning reversal (or was it?) has reinforced two truths: the culture war is a long way from over, and it is hardly a one-sided affair.
Throughout the controversy, the Komen Foundation gave two reasons for their decision to not renew the grants. First, it cited their policy of not giving to organizations who are under investigation (a criteria they seem to have softened in their announcement reversing their original decision). Second, it pointed to a desire to focus funding more narrowly on those who actually provide mammograms. Which Planned Parenthood does not.
On those grounds, the decision to defund Planned Parenthood seems eminently reasonable. Yet those stated positions were interpreted by both pro-life and pro-choice advocates as merely window dressing for the deeper, more politicized reasons. Pro-lifers delighted in their victory, while pro-choicers bemoaned the purported assault on women's health.
Komen valiantly resisted both interpretations, even into the final statement. "This is not a political decision," CEO Nancy Brinker told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell in her first interview on the question. And the most recent statement underlined the message: "We have been distressed at the presumption that the changes made to our funding criteria were done for political reasons or to specifically penalize Planned Parenthood. They were not."
The idea that "politics" shouldn't enter into health is, of course, a noble one with strong intuitive appeal. No one wants to see breast cancer continue, and if there were a way to end it today (the way we functionally ended polio) people of good faith would find ways to work across platforms and positions in order to make it happen.
Yet the practical questions of pursuing such ends invariably make health political. Health has become political because our bodies are inescapably political. On its most simplistic level, caring for human bodies requires resources. We need food, or in the case under question, women need health care and the money to compensate those who provide it.
Yet the exchange of resources invariably makes health, and health care, about much more than the particular person receiving the help they need. As our eating entangles us in a web of relations, most of which are not our choosing, so the medicine and the medical services we receive.
The question of distributing money for particular goals, like ending breast cancer, is made all the more difficult when the recipients offer a range of services. Let me point out the conundrum by way of an analogous case that many conservatives favor (including me): federal money for faith-based initiatives is predicated on the idea that money can be segmented, such that the money received does not go toward specifically sectarian ends. Yet funding a single service by an organization not only legitimizes it in the public as a provider, but enables it to offer a broader menu of services more efficiently.
My point is not to argue one way or the other about whether the Komen Foundation should have continued funding Planned Parenthood. I am of the opinion that they should not.