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Saturday, February 4, 2012

It's the Politics, Stupid

“Is it possible for a woman’s health organization to stay out of the abortion issue and help all women?” asked Mr. Raffaelli, the Komen board member. “I don’t know the answer to that yet. What we were doing before was angering the right-to-life crowd. Then, with our decision in December, we upset the pro-choice crowd. And now we’re going to make the right-to-life crowd mad all over again. How do we stop doing that?”
                          "Cancer Group Backs Down on Cutting Off Planned Parenthood"
How? Simple, really.

In the last week or so, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation (an incredibly awkward name, by the way, but that's a problem for another day) has come under fire for a decision, made late last year, to discontinue grants for Planned Parenthood.  This was in response to pressure from pro-lifers, who objected to Komen's funding of a group that provides abortion services.  When Komen's decision went public, the backlash was immediate and, given the reach of the internet, pretty much ubiquitous.  Hundreds of thousands of messages on social networks blasted Komen, and Komen yesterday backed down, saying that Planned Parenthood could again apply for grants.

Komen board member John Raffaelli suspects that, now that Komen has given in to pressure from pro-choice advocates, his group will now face pressure again from pro-lifers.  He may be right.  He can take solace, though, in the fact that surveys consistently show a large majority of Americans identifying themselves as pro-choice; so if you must alienate someone, it makes more sense to alienate the anti-choicers.

I suspect, though, that Komen got into trouble not so much because of the group's actions but because of the way these actions were taken.  After all, the funding Komen provides Planned Parenthood amounts to a small part of the Komen budget, and Planned Parenthood actually increased its revenues in the wake of Komen's decision (admittedly due in large part to the outrage generated by the Komen decision).  What grates on people's nerves was the nakedly political nature of Komen's actions.  Komen decided to de-fund Planned Parenthood in a very quiet way, mainly in an effort to avoid the very reactions that the decision provoked.  If a group is going to act politically, it can hardly be shocked when the body politic responds.

What would have happened if the folks at Komen had made a public statement saying that its board was simply opposed on principle to supporting an organization that provides abortions?  Would there have been a backlash?  Sure.  Would Komen have lost supporters?  Yes. But it would not have lost as many supporters as it did.  This is because its actions would have been seen as principled--wrongheaded, perhaps, but principled.  Instead, their actions appeared--quite rightly--as nothing more than a cynical political ploy to avoid losing money.

The general public is not so intolerant as some of these groups seem to expect.  We can appreciate an organization that acts on principle, even if we disagree with the principles on which it acts.  What we cannot tolerate is hypocrisy.

(Digression: The direct inspiration for Komen's decision to de-fund Planned Parenthood was a congressional witch hunt launched by an extreme right-wing congressman, Cliff Stearns, to investigate whether Planned Parenthood inappropriately used federal funds to provide abortions (all indications are that it hasn't).  If Komen was, directly or not, responding to this investigation--as it actually claims it was doing--all Komen had to do was make an announcement that its policy was not to award grants to organizations under congressional invesitgation--and that if people were outraged, they should take out their ire on Stearns.EOD)

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