The Internet has exploded over the past couple of days with news that Susan G. Komen, the largest breast cancer organization in the US, would halt funding for Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of reproductive health services in the US. A virtual uprising on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms by Komen and Planned Parenthood supporters and opponents and high-profile media coverage has inspired a national debate. As of this morning, Komen has reversed its decision. Since 2005, Komen has funded Planned Parenthood’s breast health and education programs, which include screenings and referrals for mammograms and other diagnostic testing, with just under $700,000 in grants disbursed to 19 (of 83) affiliates last year. At the heart of the controversy: the American abortion debate.
Planned Parenthood and its defenders, as well as some from Komen itself, have alleged that the organization gave in to pressure from anti-choice groups that oppose Planned Parenthood’s contraception and abortion programs. Komen, the “marketing juggernaut that brought the world the ubiquitous pink ribbon campaign,” has maintained that its funding halt was the result of internal changes to grant-making criteria. Komen founder and CEO, Nancy Brinker, appeared in a video, posted to the organization’s website and YouTube, charged critics with “mischaracter[ing]” the changes, which were made to increase impact and efficiency. An investigative piece from The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg cited anonymous sources within Komen who said that the new funding guidelines were merely an excuse to stop all grants to Planned Parenthood, which finds itself continually under fire from socially conservative, often religious, groups and politicians. The revised Komen grant rules stipulated that any grantee under investigation by a local, state, or federal authority would no longer be eligible to receive funding. Representative Cliff Stearns, Republican of Florida, has been leading an investigation to learn whether Planned Parenthood had used US government funding for abortions, which would violate federal regulations. Goldberg also discusses the role of Komen’s new senior vice president for public policy, Karen Handel, in pushing to end funding to Planned Parenthood. Handel ran for governor of Georgia in 2010 and is on the record as anti-choice and against Planned Parenthood’s mission. As Goldberg points out, Planned Parenthood and Komen both say that previous funding has been used for breast cancer programs, not abortions or other reproductive health services.
While announcing Komen’s restitution of funding to Planned Parenthood, the organization apologized to the American public, stating that it would “ensure that politics has no place in our grant process.” Only grantees under criminal investigation would be deemed ineligible. The executive director of a Komen branch in New Jersey attributed the reversal to the public uproar and to actions within the organization itself: “We sent official letters to the headquarters,” she said. “Komen is a grassroots organization. The displeasure and the outrage was heard and the decision was reversed. I’m thrilled.” Planned Parenthood, which has an annual operating budget of $1.1 billion, ended up benefitting from the national attention: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged a $250,000 matching grant, a Texas couple donated another $250,000, and 6,000 individual donors gave $400,000 in the first 24 hours after the initial Komen decision.
How, you might ask, could an almost universally-celebrated organization (almost, with emphasis) that focuses on breast cancer end up at the center of a debate about abortion? The American political debate about a woman’s right to choose, of course, is so bitter and so divisive that it spills over to almost anything to do with women’s health. In the past, HIV/AIDS programs and reproductive health services worldwide that were funded by US government programs were hobbled by the global gag rule. It is an unfortunate (and ridiculous) truth that women’s health is inherently politicized. It is also true that with or without legal protections for reproductive choice, some women will still seek out abortions, whether legal and safe or illegal and dangerous, which Foreign Policy Blogger for Children, Cassandra Clifford, discussed last week. To quote Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. In fact, Secretary Clinton just says it all:
The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street protesters and the recent virtual protests against SOPA and PIPA and Komen’s decision have a vector in common: the power of the Web. In the past, grassroots activism has been a long and slow road–such as that for HIV/AIDS awareness, ARV access, and increased investment in prevention and treatment programs. Social media platforms have transformed into global megaphones, where people around the world can connect with each other, pass along news even before it breaks on mainstream media sources, and demand change. This week’s events have illustrated the potential of the Internet as a grassroots platform to call for more awareness about and funding for global health. As I’ve written too many times in the past, precarious funding situations and underfunding are the major barriers to improved health worldwide. With the strength of online grassroots activism, global health advocates have an ideal tool to promote their messages and to secure funding. They must hone these tactics to initiate viral awareness and fundraising campaigns across social media and other web-based platforms. After all, it doesn’t count if it’s not on Facebook.