Despite the angry words and hurt feelings on both sides of the argument, this week's controversy will see both the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation and Planned Parenthood come out ahead in one very important area: fundraising.
Komen's leaders continue to insist that their decision to end grants to Planned Parenthood is not about abortion politics; a defense that no one is buying, not even its loudest supporters. The new rule that they say is the cause of all this trouble — that Komen will no longer give grants to organizations under investigation — was created after Planned Parenthood became the target of a Congressional probe, has only been applied to Planned Parenthood so far, and would surely come back to bite the foundation in the future. Grants they've given to Penn State University are already being called into question and as, Washington Senator Patty Murray pointed out, all it would take is one enterprising Congressperson to launch a probe against Komen itself and the entire organization would be in violation of its own rules.
Much of the online debate yesterday was about just how much of Planned Parenthood's services are abortion related or how much that should matter. One telling quote from Rachael Larimore at Slate: "There are consequences, or should be, for an organization that continues to perform more and more abortions." Those saying Planned Parenthood is mostly about the free health screenings it provides (even if that is a huge chuck of their business) are also muddying the argument. This is a fight about abortion... and that fight is fought with money.
Komen's executives may or not be anti-abortion (though some clearly are), but it seems to be that many potential donors have let it be known that they won't support Komen as long as it supports Planned Parenthood. This may have come as a shock to many women's health activists, but it's apparently been a well-known talking point in pro-life circles for some time. Since Planned Parenthood's grants are a such small part of what Komen does, the calculation likely made sense from an organizational standpoint, to let the grants go and open themselves up to donations from the pro-life camp. Komen may not have expected quite the backlash they've gotten and they will certainly lose pro-choice donors, but there's reason to believe that the new donors they get will more than offset the loss. Even Komen executives who are pro-choice would have a hard-time arguing against the policy on the grounds that it would hurt Komen's overall fundraising efforts.
Since we know that Planned Parenthood is already better off donation-wise, Will Wilkinson at Big Think says the two groups couldn't have planned this week any better if they had actually colluded to use the culture war to their mutual benefit. Both the pro-life and pro-choice camps have riled their base and opened pocketbooks in a way not seen in years.
That said, the PR battle will continue to rage for some time and on that front Komen is definitely taking a beating. NBC's Andrea Mitchell, herself a breast cancer survivor, took Komen's founder (and Susan G. Komen's sister) Nancy Brinker to task on air. Senator Barbara Boxer compared the Congressional investigation of Planned Parenthood to McCarthyism. Slate's Amanda Marcotte calls it "junior high school" tactics. The pink ribbon itself is in danger of becoming a symbol of divisive politics.
Planned Parenthood is taking its shots too. Conservatives are calling the treatment of Komen the equivalent of a "liberal blacklist" where anyone who breaks ranks with the cultural left "must be ruined." ("This is war," says Rod Dreher, as if pro-life conservatives weren't equally committed to fighting it.) But that's a battle Planned Parenthood is used to fighting. Komen is only beginning to feel the wrath of those who think they've now been wronged by the "pinkwashing" of breast cancer research. In perhaps the most fortiutously timed movie release in recent memory, a Canadian documentary about breast cancer fundraisers is being released today. It's based on a 2006 book called Pink Ribbons, Inc. that, like Barabra Ehrenreich's classic essay Cancerland and writer Peggy Orenstein have done in the past, attacks the industry of "Big Pink" that commodifies and sexualizes the disease in the service of marketing. (Pink guns, anyone?) There are charges that it enriches its leaders while not doing enough to actually lower the rates of breast cancer.
It's not easy to attack a charity with a noble goal and that has done good work, but Komen's actions this week made it a lot easier. If this is truly "the last straw" for those activists, those attacks will only get louder and stronger. The good news, in that case, is that for every angry liberal they lose, Komen will likely gain an equally angry conservative sympathetic to the idea that those liberals are out to get them all. The opponents of Planned Parenthood have now found a kindred spirit so everyone in this culture war can claim at least a partial victory.