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Politics, Pinkwashing, and the Komen Foundation

Sharon Lerner

It wasn’t a surprise that the Komen Foundation was a political animal. Or it shouldn’t have been. Well before the breast cancer group’s decision to pull its funding for Planned Parenthood to screen low-income women for breast cancer, there was ample evidence of –and great reporting on - Komen’s “cozy relationship” with Republican leadership. We should have already known about Komen’s advocacy against Medicaid funding for cancer screening, patients’ rights and other things you might thing a women’s health advocacy organization would hold dear. 

Indeed, as Mary Ann Swissler points out in her 2002 expose, Nancy Brinker, Komen’s founder and CEO, had deep corporate and political ties that she has used over the years to fight against Democratic legislation. She and her now ex-husband Norman were even instrumental in George W. Bush’s ascent. 

Through the years, the Brinkers helped deliver the state of Texas to George W. Bush, for the governor's seat and then the Presidency. Their phenomenal fund-raising skills earned them the moniker of "Bush Pioneers," followed up with committee positions for the Bush Inaugural Ball, which requires a minimum $25,000 donation. On her own steam, Nancy Brinker lists nearly $256,000 in Bush and Republican Party donations, from Bush gubernatorial races, GOP hard and soft money, and federal PAC hard money, according to FEC records.

Even with this background, the news that Ari Fleisher, that Bush’s former press secretary, was central in Komen’s communications strategy around Planned Parenthood is a jarring reminder of just how politicized women’s health can be – and how destructive that process can be to women. (No doubt in the hopes of preserving his reputation as a strategist, Fleisher points that he wasn’t responsible for the crisis communications, which were handled – horribly - by Ogilvy PR.)

Clearly Komen suffered the most damage this round. The Komen Affair ended with the mastermind of the pink ribbon and “race for a cure” out-visualed and out-strategized by some really angry women (and men). After three days in which the Internet went virtually pink with images like this and this, Komen retreated – or at least promised “to continue to fund existing grants.

Planned Parenthood, meanwhile, won the sympathy of not just pro-choice advocates, but also those in the moderate middle. The group landed more than $3 million in pledges since the Affair began, including $250,000 from Mayor Michael Bloomberg (well more than the $680,000 for breast cancer screening that started the whole affair, it should be noted). Meanwhile, Politico reports that centrists “Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who’s facing a tough re-election fight this fall, along with Democratic Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Max Baucus of Montana” were among the signers of a letter to Brinker condemning her decision.

But if the battle is won, the war goes on and on – whatever happens to Komen. In a disgusted outburst, concerned citizens have shown they can make up for the funds that, despite Komen’s insistence to the contrary, were clearly punitively pulled to make a political point. We’ve had less success tackling the vulnerability of the low-income women who would have been affected by the cuts. If we can’t blame Komen directly for that, we can blame some of their cohorts. And ourselves, for letting their relationship be “pink-washed.”