Saturday, February 4, 2012

11 Thoughts on the SGK/PPFA Brouhaha

As you no doubt know by now, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, citing a Congressional inquiry into Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s funding, announced earlier this week that they would no longer provide monetary support for that organization’s breast cancer screenings.

This decision resulted in copious fecal matter interfacing the whirling rotors. In the wake of a couple of 6-figure donations to Planned Parenthood, the SGK brain trust scrambled to get their story straight amid growing acrimony from long-time allies. Ultimately, the funding was restored (sort of), with Planned Parenthood coming out well ahead in at least financial terms, the SGK folks losing prestige and (probably) money in the wake of their decision, and the double standards of virtually all concerned being much in evidence.

I’d make a few points, some of which I haven’t seen discussed in the feeding frenzy of (needless to say, largely incompetent) media coverage:

1. The decision to de-fund Planned Parenthood was made long ago, with the hiring of Karen Handel as vice president for public policy. If the SGT hierarchy hired a failed Georgia gubernatorial candidate who ran on a strong (radical?) anti-abortion platform, pledging to de-fund Planned Parenthood, what did they—or the rest of us—expect? Answer: they’re either even more screamingly inept than they seem, or they knew exactly what they were getting, and indeed hired Ms. Handel for precisely the purpose of severing ties between the two organizations.

That said, we must also consider two things, as pointed out in a Los Angeles Times piece on the controversy surrounding Handel. First, Komen founder/CEO Nancy Brinker said in an interview on MSNBC this week that Handel “did not have anything to do with this decision.” This argument is substantially weakened by the fact that Brinker seems to have a lot of trouble telling the truth (see below) and by the fact that it strikes me as passing strange that an important and newsworthy decision about public policy would be made without considerable input from… erm… the VP for public policy. People who believe this story also believe that Bush the elder knew nothing about Iran-Contra.

More persuasive is the argument that Handel isn’t the frothing-at-the-mouth ideologue being portrayed in the media. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, she was “hammered” during her gubernatorial campaign by Georgia Right to Life because she did her job oversaw federal and state grants to Planned Parenthood while Fulton County Commissioner.

Still, no reasonably clear-eyed observer really believes either that Handel wasn’t promoting a political agenda or that she wasn’t involved in this debacle up to her eyeballs. Curiously, this is not really a criticism of her. We disagree on Planned Parenthood. Fine. But SGK hired a fox to guard the henhouse; they can’t be surprised when there’s just a few feathers where Ol’ Clucky used to be.

Moreover, John Hammarley, former senior communications advisor for Komen, tells reporters for Mother Jones that:
About a year ago, a small group of people got together inside the organization to talk about what the options were, what would be the ramifications of staying the course, or of telling our affiliates they can't fund Planned Parenthood, or something in between. As we looked at the ramifications of ceasing all funding, we felt it would be worse from a practical standpoint, from a public-relations standpoint, and from a mission standpoint. The mission standpoint is, “How could we abandon our commitment to the screening work done by Planned Parenthood?”
Komen’s professional staff recommended continued funding of Planned Parenthood; the board overruled them. That’s not a scandal, but it is suggestive.

2. SGK is free to support (or not) whomever they choose, provided they’re honest about it. It’s the latter part that’s the problem here. Deciding to provide the same services through different means is not unethical. Pretending a decision is apolitical when it obviously is: that’s a different matter. Which brings us to…

3. The announced reason for the decision was disingenuous if not outright mendacious. First off, the provision which allegedly forced Komen’s hand was apparently made up for the purpose. No one seems to dispute that it was a “new rule.” You can’t make up a new rule expressly for the purpose of accomplishing Objective X and then mutter inanities about how regrettable it is to have to make a decision that leads to achieving said objective but, of course, your hands were tied. Anyone who believes that line of crap is one of those folks who believes you when you say there’s no word “gullible” in the dictionary.

Moreover, the dictate seems to have been, shall we say, unevenly applied. Komen funds allegedly couldn’t go to an enterprise “should Komen become aware that an applicant or its affiliates are under formal investigation for financial or administrative improprieties by local, state or federal authorities.” Yeah, well, except for the $7.5 million going to Penn State, for example. “Administrative improprieties”? Yeah, I think you could say that, and yes, there is a formal investigation underway.

Where there isn’t a formal investigation underway is with respect to Planned Parenthood. Yes, Republican Representative Cliff Stearns of Florida, chair of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, did initiate an inquiry into Planned Parenthood’s use of federal funds. Of course, the leftie press is screaming that Stearns is misusing his authority to waste lots of taxpayer-funded time and energy on a politically-motivated fishing expedition, the Congressional equivalent of a SLAPP lawsuit. Chances they’re right: a little over 99%, rounded up to the nearest integer. Chances it’s relevant: 0.

What the pro-choicers (and, let’s face it, that’s who they are: see #7 below) should be arguing is that Stearns’s sally is technically an inquiry rather than an investigation. Those terms might sound interchangeable to you and me, Gentle Reader, but apparently there’s a real distinction there (similar to the difference between a reprimand and a censure) in Washington-speak. As I understand it, an inquiry is a preliminary step to determine whether an investigation (which implies hearings) is necessary and appropriate. Anyway, there’s a difference, and I’m betting the Komen folks could have rounded up a lawyer to explain it to them by… I dunno… walking down the hall or something.

4. The Congressional “inquiry” is in fact political in nature, but that doesn’t (inherently) make it inappropriate. Stearns is seeking to be a pain in the ass to Planned Parenthood, nothing more and nothing less. But this doesn’t mean his alleged concerns—not to be confused with his tactics—are without merit. Money that goes to PPFA for a specific purpose has to be used for that purpose: the Komen money for breast cancer screening, federal funds for virtually anything but abortion.

Stearns argues that the money is fungible, and that ultimately federal funds that go to PPFA end up in a big pot: a dollar Planned Parenthood doesn’t have to spend on breast cancer screening or safe sex education is a dollar they can spend instead on providing abortions. It is illegal for any of the millions of dollars in federal funding PPFA to be used to fund abortions. It is illegal for any of the millions of dollars the Chamber of Commerce collects from foreign corporations to be used influence elections. Guess what? The two cases are identical. Guess what else? Neither side admits it.

5. The money we’re talking about sounds like a lot, but is ultimately pretty insignificant compared to the budgets of either organization. SGK disperses about $89 million a year, and has an annual budget of close to four times that. Planned Parenthood has an annual budget of over a billion dollars. At stake here: about $680,000. So less than a quarter of one percent of the SGK budget was going to be spent in a different place, impacting Planned Parenthood to the tune of two-thirds of one hundredth of one percent of their budget.

6. SGT is now and has been for some time—perhaps since its inception—more interested in its own image than in actually helping people who need it. While Charity Navigator gives them an overall 4-star rating, they do spend a fair amount of money on other than programmatic costs: over three times as much on a percentage basis as Partners in Health, for example. And only 19% of the organization’s budget actually goes to research.

More insidious is the organization’s monomaniacal obsession with branding. It’s pretty clear that the fight against breast cancer is for them more of an opportunity to strut their do-gooder credentials than to accomplish anything tangible towards “the cure.” They are interested in getting credit, even if what they’re getting credit for is, in the words of the KomenWatch blog (yes, there is such a thing, and yes, it’s been around a while), systematic:
• misrepresentation of the realities of the disease
• skewed program allocations
• ongoing misinformation about the role of mammograms and “awareness” as keys to the eradication of the disease
• lack of ethical review processes concerning corporate contributions and “pinkwashing”
• failure to cooperate with other breast cancer organizations
Indeed, there seems to be an organizational culture founded on corporate models to such an extent that competition rather than cooperation with other health-care charities seems to be the goal. Why else, for example, would you sic lawyers on a charity sled-dog race called “Mush for a Cure”? Seriously, these very special little snowflakes think that “cure” is somehow their private preserve. (The good news is that this may spare us a reunion of that execrable ‘80s band.)

It is reasonable to suggest, as does erstwhile Mush for a Cure organizer Sue Prom, that “People are donating money to this organization [Komen] to fight cancer—not to fight another organization fighting breast cancer.” An interest in branding is not an inherently bad thing, but there’s a fair amount of counter-intuitive insensitivity mixed in with the predictable collection of pink crap. After all, nothing says “life-affirming” like a pink Walther .22.

Last May, ChemoBabe lit into the latest (at the time) perverse pseudo-fundraiser, Nancy Brinker’s signature perfume (yes, perfume), Promise Me. Here’s ChemoBabe:
My outrage is simple and comes in three parts: linking cancer to a perfume, the weird beauty breast cancer connection, and the misleading use of the money.

1. Many people in chemo, myself included, become incredibly chemically sensitive. I almost passed out when a woman at my gym sprayed perfume in the locker room. I was shaking and it took a half an hour for the episode to pass. The last thing I wanted to be near or around was any kind of fragrance. There is even evidence that fragrance may be carcinogenic – For the Cure® indeed!

2. Why do we have beauty products to raise funds and awareness for breast cancer alone? It is the only form of cancer that demands that we stay beautiful, even as we puke our guts out and lose our hair. Komen perpetuates this ideal.

Breast cancer is the Beautiful Cancer. Can you imagine a brain cancer perfume? How about anal cancer? Why is there not the same dissonance with breast cancer? It’s all cancer, for crying out loud!

3. This “floriental” scented perfume costs $59.00. Of that, how much do you think goes to research? If you said $1.51, you are correct! (Thanks for the math, Uneasy Pink!)

Since Komen spends a minuscule fraction of that on researching metastatic disease, very little of your fifty-nine bucks is going toward a cure.

Hell hath no fury like a nauseous me involuntarily squirted with perfume, Komen. It’s on now.
Side note: I have no idea who ChemoBabe might be. But I like her, and I wish her well.

Finally, there’s the actual public statement from Nancy Brinker. Direct quote: “Regrettably, this strategic shift will affect any number of long-standing partners. But we have always done what is right for our organization, for our donors and volunteers.” First off, if the effect on “long-standing partners” will be regrettable, maybe you shouldn’t do it. More importantly, the second sentence here is telling. I tend to distrust those who tell me they always do what’s right (see here for a 3-year-old essay on that point), because that implies what is to me a rather horrifying certainty about what is right. With that caveat, however, this is the one place in the speech where I’m pretty sure Brinker is telling the truth: their priorities are 1). themselves, 2). those who fund them, and 3). those who work for them without $400K+ salaries. Notice anyone missing? Like the women they purport to serve, for example?

Obviously, people in the know have been skeptical of SGK for some time. We should be thankful, I suppose, that the rest of us are finding out more about their priorities and their tactics as a result of this brouhaha.

7. The majority of the howls of protest came precisely because the “victim” was Planned Parenthood, not because a foundation dedicated to women’s health issues re-aligned its grants policy. Planned Parenthood has a special place in the hearts of those on the left. Whether this is because the organization is so often demonized by the idiot right (Cf. Jon Kyl), or because they unabashedly provide abortion services, I’m not sure. But other organizations which provide, say, cancer screenings (or mammograms, which Planned Parenthood doesn’t, in fact, provide) don’t generate the visceral protectiveness engendered by PPFA. They’re being attacked on the basis of abortion and defended primarily because of abortion. It would be unfair to say that no one in this equation seriously cares much about breast cancer, but it’s certainly true that the attackers and defenders alike are using that horrible malady simply as an excuse to advocate on their respective sides of a contentious political debate fundamentally unrelated to the eradication of a killer disease.

8. Planned Parenthood will continue to thrive and will continue to be under attack for providing perfectly legal services. The last week has brought a number of supporters out of the woodwork, often to the tune of lots and lots of dollars. The Komen announcement inspired several of my FB friends to break out the checkbook. All told, counting six-figure contributions by billionaire New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, by CREDO, and by Lance Armstrong’s Live Strong foundation, Planned Parenthood brought in $3 million in a couple of days. Yes, that’s over four times as much money as they were threatened to lose per annum. They’ll be fine. Side note: it will be interesting to see what happens when the full provisions of Obamacare kick in, and the need for such services (presumably) decreases.

Meanwhile, you can count on further attacks on Planned Parenthood’s federal funding. State governments are already making inroads, sometimes in places you might not expect, like New Hampshire. And in the wake of the Komen pseudo-reversal, the right-wing usual suspects blared forth even more predicatably, with even more hysteria and even less sense than their leftie counterparts had a couple days earlier.

A sampling:
Catholic Online: “They are a billion-dollar spoiled brat, but unfortunately, no one has the guts to put them in the corner and take away their toys. (This spoiled brat, like a Transformer, morphs into a giant monster bully that will demolish anyone who gets in the way.)”

Fox contributor Sandy Rios (also the VP of Family Pac Federal): “we are witnessing an absolute shakedown or an organization that just wants to save the lives of women through cancer research.”

And, of course, we can count on Rush Limbaugh to have a very high bluster-to-usefulness ratio: “they [SGK] have caved big time to the feminazis at Planned Parenthood.”

9. SGT’s “reversal” wasn’t one; it was merely a cynical, and largely successful, attempt to trick a stupid and compliant media into turning down the heat. They are, if nothing else, smart enough to realize that reneging on current agreements isn’t such a hot idea. So we were already talking about future money, anyway. But, as the leftie blogosphere has figured out but the corporate media hasn’t, there was no guarantee that Komen would continue to fund Planned Parenthood.

Their official statement says only that “We will continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants, while maintaining the ability of our affiliates to make funding decisions that meet the needs of their communities.” Ooh, golly, they can apply now. Wow. Doesn’t mean the application will be approved. Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect more than that. SGK shouldn’t have to commit now to what they’ll do down the road. But that doesn’t change the widespread perception—including mine—that they’re just kicking the can down the road to take a little of the short-term heat off.

10. SGT’s leadership is incompetent, dishonest, sanctimonious, and narcissistic. They’ll also still be employed at 6-figure salaries, passing out pink t-shirts and running ridiculous overheads, when the smoke clears. They’ll take a short-term hit, then go blithely on their Pepto-pink way, talking about the subject they care most about: their public image.

11. Nancy Brinker says Komen will never bow to political pressure. Fact is, they already did. Twice.

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