How the Komen Decision Had Race and Class Written All Over It

How the Komen Decision Had Race and Class Written All Over It


It was funny watching everyone from pundits to politicians stumble over, around, and straight up under the point in the fracas over the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s indecisive roller coaster ride over Planned Parenthood: race and class.  Bad enough we were, yet again, finding ourselves caught up in the culture war sidebar that is abortion on the eve of what will be one of the most intensely fought general elections in modern American history.  And while the unemployment rate, while dropping, is still way above acceptable levels, the last thing most Americans want to think about is what amounts to someone else’s business and battle with their conscience.

Many have barely figured out how to make next month’s rent, much less how to brace for $4/gallon gasoline (’cause that’s what’s next, son, if Israel decides to drop bombs on Iran) into spring. One nice thing about the recession: it was a nice, relaxing respite from abortion wars blazing the headlines.  Thanks to the Komen decision – and then reversal – it’s no longer a wedge issue on the margin.

The political game over abortion, however, is really not much more than a subtext of the bigger clashes over race and class.  What was missed during this entire week of debate is that the Komen flap had all kinds of race and class written all over it.  But, no one really wanted to step into that.  Gatekeepers of partisan talking points struggled with every last breath on talk shows to stay away from either conversation, pretty much using abortion as the perfect cover.

Untouched was the fact that this was pretty much a decision made by pink-ribbon wearing affluent White women comfortably detached from the reality of what Planned Parenthood is doing and who benefits from those services.  Amazingly, we got consumed by a discussion on funding for abortions when, in reality, Planned Parenthood only focuses 3% of its services on abortion.  While many pro-life conservatives will argue that even one abortion is too many, the math pretty much makes it all look a bit ridiculous and over the top.  See the graph attached to this.

I’m not taking any side on the abortion debate.  I’m just saying, politically, it’s not what I would want my elected officials worried about at the moment.

A deeper look at the numbers also shows that over three quarters of women using Planned Parenthood are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level.  Over a quarter of Planned Parenthood patients are Latinas and 15 percent are Black women; 40% of Latinas and nearly 20% of African American women are uninsured and – oh yeah – nearly 15% of White women are uninsured.  Which means that Planned Parenthood health centers are quite possibly the closest thing to primary health care for millions of poor women with inadequate access to affordable, reliable and user-friendly health care.

The problem here is that we’re getting twisted into a knot about abortion when the issue is about whether or not our rather large underserved and impoverished population – which is nearly 20% of Americans – is able to access quality care and preemptive screenings for a vast range of major health disparities.  Obviously, that’s still not the case when Black women, for example, are still more likely to die from breast and cervical cancer than White women.  Yet, steps toward further prevention of such glaring gaps is about 16% of what Planned Parenthood does.  And, let’s not even talk about the high rates of sexually transmitted diseases in these same communities extensively serviced by the 35% of resources Planned Parenthood has focused on STD Testing and Treatment.

Politically, Planned Parenthood is as much to blame for this annoying oversight as the right is for outright ignoring it.  The 96-year old organization is too hardheaded and singularly obsessed with the abortion fight to finally recognize that it’s time for a name change and an overhaul of its marketing plan.  Clearly, when examining what it really does, it’s difficult to understand how exactly Planned Parenthood became synonymous with abortion and the pro-choice movement.  But, maybe it’s not when the name brazenly promotes the “planned” aspect of a women seeking to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.  There’s misalignment between its brand and the types of services it provides.

Still, it wants to charge ahead with the same name, fighting a political battle that it’s not going to win as long as the opposition is this deep and this loud.

Some pro-choice activists or supporters would call a Planned Parenthood name change “capitulation.”  But, it’s really just smart politics – the same kind of smart politics that’s made the pro-life movement that much more effective in corralling votes and sympathy.  Pro-choice advocates may counter that it’s not about politics; but, the fact that they and many other women’s rights organizations engage in endless combat with conservatives and religious groups is, of course, political.  What’s the difference?

So, we had yet another week in which abortion dominated a discussion about desperately needed scarce funding and resources for low-income women and people of color.  That’s what this is really all about.  Talking up abortion is – real talk – a convenient way to avoid that very uncomfortable conversation and a collective unwillingness to address some very serious health disparities in the United States.  And until we come to grips with that, we’re really missing the point.


  1. […] Abortion politics and breast cancer: Local Komen group will need heroic effort …OregonLive.comBy Susan Nielsen, The Oregonian View full sizeBrent Wojahn/The Oregonian/2010Runners and walkers in a Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Portland were met with cheering groups throughout the course. The local affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure …How the Komen Decision Had Race and Class Written All Over ItPolitic365 […]

  2. Charles, you're definitely right about the race and class issues at work here. Yuppies wearing pink t-shirts and participating in the Race for the Cure don't want to think about the realities that inner city women live with–lack of opportunities, lack of adequate education, lack of preventive health care. They just want to eat their pink yogurt and feel like they're doing something to combat breast cancer, when in reality, they are just falling for a clever marketing campaign that doesn't really help women much at all.

  3. However, I don't think you're right that all Planned Parenthood needs to do is change its name and focus on preventive health services rather than abortion. The truth is, the conservatives will still come after PP even after a name change. Even if PP stopped providing abortions, the pro-lifers will still try to put it out of business. Why? Because Planned Parenthood allows women, especially young and poor women, to be in control of their own sex lives. There is a surprisingly large segment of society that wants to turn the clock back on the sexual revolution and on women's rights. They will always oppose Planned Parenthood because PP is on the front lines against their reactionary attempts to put women back "in their place."