Wednesday, February 01, 2012

On Susan G. Komen For the Cure: Pink ribbons and an opened can of worms

The largest and most well-funded breast cancer organization in America, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, announced on Tuesday that it would no longer give cancer-screening funds to Planned Parenthood. Simply put, this will mean that many thousands of low-income and uninsured American women--nearly 170,000 of them, in fact--will have to go without clinical breast exams and mammograms:

Over the past five years, the Komen organization has given Planned Parenthood health centers the funds to provide nearly 170,000 clinical breast exams to low-income and uninsured women. But now, amid pressure from anti-abortion lawmakers and organizations, Komen has made the decision to cut off hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to Planned Parenthood.

And as you may have already heard, Komen's unconscionable defunding move has absolutely nothing to do with supporting women nor with providing them with the means to detect cancer at an early stage, which for many will improve prognosis and survival rates.

No, Komen has decided to inject extremist anti-choice politics into women's healthcare, and in so doing, they've inadvertently exposed the extremism and greed of their organization's administration as well as its troubling modus operandi (of which more in a moment).

In April, 2011, Komen appointed former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel as Vice President. As Georgia residents already know, Handel, who ran for governor of that state in 2010, is a vocal opponent of choice. Despite having no background whatsoever in medicine or science--or, indeed, a degree of any sort beyond a high-school diploma--and no work experience in health care (unless one considers working for Hallmark Cards as somehow being part of the healthcare arena), Handel declared that when she was elected governor, she would determine the medical fates of countless low-income Georgia women by cutting off state funding for Planned Parenthood's breast and cervical cancer screening services:

First, let me be clear, since I am pro-life, I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood. During my time as Chairman of Fulton County, there were federal and state pass-through grants that were awarded to Planned Parenthood for breast and cervical cancer screening, as well as a “Healthy Babies Initiative.” The grant was authorized, regulated, administered and distributed through the State of Georgia. Because of the criteria, regulations and parameters of the grant, Planned Parenthood was the only eligible vendor approved to meet the state criteria. Additionally, none of the services in any way involved abortions or abortion-related services. In fact, state and federal law prohibits the use of taxpayer funds for abortions or abortion related services and I strongly support those laws. Since grants like these are from the state I’ll eliminate them as your next Governor.

The above paragraph comes directly from Handel's campaign blog, so one can safely assume that her anti-choice defunding scheme was well-known to the people in charge at Komen when they appointed her. And now we know about it, too.

What's more, many of us busy women who've made donations in the past--or perhaps even walked or run in the famous Race for the Cure--are now, finally, taking a good, hard look at this slickly-marketed charitable organization, and what we're discovering is truly taking the pretty out of pink.

Where the money comes from and goes

From the Komen Wiki page:

In the 2009-2010 fiscal year, ending March 31, 2010, Komen reported approximately US $400 million in earnings. Of this, $365 million (91.3 percent) came from contributions from the public, including donations, sponsorships, race entry fees, and contributed goods and services. Approximately $35 million (8.8 percent) came from interest and dividends and gains on investments.

Expenditures (for the same year):

And what of those "fund-raising costs" and "administrative costs"?

According to Charity Navigator, the annual salary of the organization's former CEO and president alone was over $450,000 (it is unclear what the current president's salary is). One can access Komen's financial statements via their website, but finding the executives' individual salaries is tricky. One thing is certain, though: the hefty administrative salaries are not advertised on race materials, nor are they listed on any of the myriad pinked-out products that line the shelves during Breast Cancer Awareness month.

In addition to these salaries--which are quite high by any standards--Komen, who are ever protective of their enormous pink goose and its golden egg-laying talents, spend an unspecified yearly sum suing other non-profits who dare to use any variation of the phrase "for the cure" in their advertising and appeals to donors.


Another issue that kept coming up amid online discussions yesterday was Komen's relationship with corporate America, most saliently those corporations which profit from wrapping their their products in pink, or pink ribbons, and pushing the notion that when one buys them, one will be helping breast cancer research, or aiding breast cancer victims, or otherwise doing something good and honorable. Lest you doubt the effectiveness of this as a marketing approach, take a look at Komen's own list of "corporate partners", the length of which is impressive.

Is all this actually funding breast cancer research and financial assistance for low-income women in need of care? In a 2006 article in Time, Stacie Stukin looked into the matter:

Donating by making a purchase is a "really seductive" idea, says Samantha King, a professor of health studies at Queens University in Kingston, Ont., and the author of a new book, Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy (University of Minnesota; 157 pages). "People often say to me, 'I'm really busy, and this is something small I can do.' But the problem is, it's really not clear what kind of positive effect it's having overall."

Some of the pink-ribbon promotions don't make much sense financially. Take Yoplait's offer to donate 10¢ to the Komen Foundation for every pink yogurt lid mailed to the company from September through December. Komen would get a bigger donation if consumers simply donated the 39¢ it costs to buy each stamp, not to mention the fact that donors would have to polish off 100 yogurts to come up with a $10 contribution--a formula that surely enriches Yoplait more than the breast-cancer cause.

Big Pharma's tentacles

The matter can be summed up thus: Hadassah Lieberman, "Global Ambassador" at Komen and former lobbyist for Big Pharma.

By way of explanation: Senator Joe Lieberman--who famously fought having any kind of "public option" or Medicare for All during the healthcare debate--is married to a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry and at the same time actively worked to push legislation that would benefit these giant multinational conglomerates:

Among Hill & Knowlton’s clients when Mrs. Lieberman signed on with the firm last year was GlaxoSmithKline, the huge British-based drug company that makes vaccines along with many other drugs. As I noted in July, Sen. Lieberman introduced a bill in April 2005 (the month after his wife joined Hill & Knowlton) that would award billions of dollars in new “incentives” to companies like GlaxoSmithKline to persuade them to make more new vaccines. Under the legislation, known as Bioshield II, the cost to consumers and governments would be astronomical, but for Lieberman and his Republican cosponsors, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., the results would be worth every penny. Using the war on terror as their ideological backdrop, the pharma-friendly senators sought to win patent extensions on products that have nothing to do with preparations against terrorist attack or natural disaster.

Three-time breast cancer survivor Jane Hamsher of the blog FireDogLake pointed out the incredible conflicts of interest at hand when she wrote to Nancy Brinker, the organization's founder (and the sister of the late Susan G. Komen), in 2009:

It has come to my attention via an article by Joe Conason in Salon that Hadassah Lieberman – wife of Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) – is currently a compensated “Global Ambassador” for Susan G. Komen for the Cure. It is widely known, however, that not only has Senator Lieberman been an instrument of obstruction to the kind of health care reform advocated by Susan G. Komen for the Cure, but that Mrs. Lieberman is also a former lobbyist worked for the lobbying firm APCO Associates, which represents the interests of the same major, private health insurance and pharmaceutical companies which Mr. Lieberman seeks to protect.

Mrs. Lieberman’s relationship with Susan G. Komen for the Cure is unethical and misleading. Important and often very personal donations made to Susan G. Komen for the Cure to benefit the sick and dying are essentially undermining their intended use. And as Hadassah travels the globe under the banner of Susan G. Komen for the cure, decrying the inadequacies of our health care system and the desperate need to reform it, her husband is at home to kill the reform efforts we so desperately need.

Unethical and underhanded tactics, say runners and donors

Komen's page on the charity review site Great Nonprofits offers a great deal of telling commentary. Bearing in mind that these are self-reported experiences that are by definition not from documented sources, take a look at what people who've participated in the Run for the Cure--or simply donated--have to say (the following comments are all dated weeks or months prior to the defunding of Planned Parenthood):

As a scientist myself I've taken the time to look into the research the Komen foundation funds and nearly all of it goes to the interest of pharmaceutical companies. The continue to help companies fund research to patent new chemotheraputic drugs while ignoring any serious competition such as the Burzynski clinic. At the same time the CEO owns stock in pharmaceutical companies she's giving grants to, and these companies always get to patent the drug the Komen foundation helps them research. If the Komen foundation cared about curing cancer they wouldn't let for profit companies keep patents.

I am glad to read that others are concerned about this organization as well. Here's what I have to say. A best friend of mine contacted the SGK foundation and she's a Breast Cancer Survivor, when her young daughter (25 yrs old) who is under insured had signs of early BC, she contacted SGK and requested some financial assistance for her daughter to get it checked out. The SGK representative told her that "they don't help people in her zip code." I was furious when I heard this and called the foundation myself to see what they would say when I gave them a similar situation, they too told me that they didn't help people in my zip code. So I emailed the SGK foundation myself and requested to find out how much money had been raised in my area (Zip code) through the walks and other events. They refused to comment and i messaged them back asking them: "How can you take money out of this community through your run/walk events and NOT give money back to help people in this area?" I never got a response back and I refuse to support this cause because of it.
Shocked!! Organization took in $135 Million in 2010, provided grants for research, education & screening of $74 Million and a paltry $10,000 (yes, only ten thousand dollars) in grants to individuals in the USA. The remaining millions were used to pay contractors (other expenses line items) and employees (many in the high 6 figure income bracket). Shameful, absolutely shameful.
I signed up to do the SGK 3-day walk for the cure. I was so proud to be able to walk for my mother-in-law who lost her battle with breast cancer on april 4, 2009. I sent the "donate for me" letters which stated, "help her get to her financial goal." I emphasize "GOAL." I soon realized that I was required to bring in $2,300! Apparently this little nugget is buried in the terms and conditions and forever after noted as a "GOAL." I cannot bring in that kind of money. My friends and family donated and I got to $300, but I don't have the time to campaign the way they want you to. I was appalled to also find out that if I didn't make it to $2,300 by the day of the event, I could give them a credit card for the remainder or just go home. They neither refund any money collected by me or my registration - which is not tax deductible. I found this outrageous and deceptive. They keep my money - received by my family to support me in this event. I basically signed up to be an unpaid fundraiser. I would think any donation and the willingness to walk 60 miles to promote awareness would be thanked....not with SGK. I'm not good enough for their charity. I agree with a former reviewer - I think they lost their way. They have raised nearly 2 billion dollars and there is no cure.

What now?

In light of everything I've learned about Susan G. Komen for the Cure in the past day, I am going to do a couple of things, and I hope readers will join me.

First, I will make every effort to avoid buying products from companies who partner with Komen, mainly by avoiding the pink ribbons, yes, but also by seeking alternatives to the ones Komen itself lists as "corporate partners".

Second, I will continue to write to my Congressmen and urge them to lead the way toward implementing Medicare For All, in order that no woman in America will ever again find herself unable to afford basic healthcare, including cancer screenings.

And last--and most importantly--when my family and I next make our charitable donations, we will be giving directly to Planned Parenthood, which continues to empower women, especially those unable to afford medical insurance, by providing them with access to critical healthcare, cancer screenings, and reproductive medicine.

Also at MOMocrats.


  1. Excellent summary.

    I've long had suspicions about the breast cancer industrial complex. The mammogram boondoggle and the nauseating, infantilizing pinkification of everything included. It's amazing to me that grown women think that by buying or wearing pink ribbons, sneakers, T-shirts, teddy bears, whatever, they're somehow furthering a cause. (And pink is my favorite color, so it's not about that.)

    Planned Parenthood is, as ever, simultaneously doing great work and struggling to survive.

    This story is getting a lot of press. Let's hope it wakes some people up.

  2. Great article!
    Thank you for all this information.

    I am sending it to my list.

  3. jeanne marie2/02/2012 11:43 AM

    I will join you, Deborah.

  4. Support Planned Parenthood and also National Breast Cancer Coalition.

    I commented at Laura Novak's with this insightful post by Charlie Pierce:

  5. Deborah, I posted your link in this thread at TUG:

  6. jeanne marie2/02/2012 4:29 PM

    RE-Think Pink

  7. Thank you, Lisa!

    And thanks for all the positive feedback, everyone. I am so pleased that dozens and dozens of excellent bloggers and journos are covering this. It seems to have struck a chord.