Friday, February 3, 2012

Pink Ribbons, Broken Promises

I've been reading a lot about the Susan G. Komen Foundation's recent decision to defund Planned Parenthood - the not-insubstantial yearly grant of $680,000 was given to 19 of the 85 American Planned Parenthood outposts and used primarily to deliver breast cancer screening like mammograms, and has since been cancelled, and then reinstated, with a somewhat confusing party line that the funds were never in question and the policy was interpreted all wrong anyway, and even if they had interpreted the policy right, they didn't really mean it.

Since many Americans view Planned Parenthood as their friendly neighbourhood Abortion Store, where children go to get sex advice and fetuses go to get killed, I'll just cite, once more, the fact that less that 3% of what PP actually does is administer abortions. Despite Republicans' insistence that abortions are the Thing Planned Parenthood Does, what PP really does is provide a full range of medical care for men and women who would otherwise go without. This includes physicals, mental health concerns, cancer screening, and yes, also sexual health guidance.

I live in Canada, where Planned Parenthood serves a different role in my community - I don't get a bill no matter which doctor I go to, so Planned Parenthood Toronto is a community health center that serves the under-29 crowd. I've been a patient there for years, and their staff has walked me through annual check-ups, made referrals for me to get my ovaries (okay, ovary) monitored, been a part of an excellent arts-oriented anxiety therapy group, and generally had my health needs served. They're part of my emotional landscape - I get twitchy when people suggest that PP is a dangerous organization, because they care for people. They care for me.

America is weird. If you fall and break your leg, you pay for the cost of your care. If you fall and break your leg because, say, someone failed to shovel their front walk and you slipped on some ice, many, many people will tell you to sue, which is a necessary, but mean, option in a land where cancer treatments will run a person (or their insurance company) upwards of $100,000 in a lifetime. The American approach to health care isn't the "shit happens" ethos that socialized health care allows a patient to adopt; it's the "let's find out whose fault this is and then sue the shit out of them" ideology that comes from capitalism, and from saying, either implicitly or explicitly, that anyone who fails to hit the big time is just not yanking on their bootstraps hard enough.

Susan G. Komen, who was best known for a billion pink ribbons, is a large company. They've become famous for their corporate partnerships - KitchenAid, for example, will produce a special stand-up mixer in that trademark breast-cancer pink, and the proceeds from those sales will be directed to research (a lot of the proceeds will be go towards the cost of organizing all those partnerships, but some funds will get into the lab, eventually, probably). SGK has come under fire in recent years - for the litigious approach towards other organizations who use the phrase "for the cure," for partnering with companies whose products contain cancer-causing ingredients, for creating a culture where breast cancer diagnoses are dipped in pink and there's no room for rage - but the PP misstep was disastrous.

The official party line was that SGK would not fund organizations who were under investigation by local, state or federal authorities. As it happens, Planned Parenthood was under investigation by a right-wing Congressional committee for allegedly providing abortions with taxpayer money (abortions are still legal in America, by the way). As it also happens, PP was the only one of the more than 2,000 organizations that receive SGK funding that was affected by the new policy.

Cue shitstorm.

Planned Parenthood gets a lot of flack in America for being an abortion provider, but let's face it: that country is weird about reproductive rights. There was a national debate in the last decade about wether or not a pharmacist could refuse to fill a prescription for Plan B - a common morning-after contraceptive that, in Canada, is available without a scrip - if the scrip conflicted with the pharmacist's position on birth control. These kinds of debates are still happening, which is outrageous. This debate is literally about wether or not a woman has access to the kinds of drugs she needs because she's a woman. It's patronizing, condescending, and forces women to ask permission for things that are rights - the right to govern her own body, to put into it what she thinks is best, and to not have folks make a big deal about it.

But the big deal remains. What's frustrating about this case is that it's woman-on-woman financial violence, and the women in question are all under the pressures of needing medical care. Nobody goes to Planned Parenthood to just, like, loiter: we go because we need care, and they give it. And by the same token, nobody gets involved in Komen fundraising because they're bored: they go because they, or their mother/aunt/sister/boss/daughter got some bad news about her tits. There should be solidarity in that stance, not distance.

Even if Komen restores all the funding and then some, I doubt that Planned Parenthood will ever really feel secure about their financial position. America is still too sharply divided about something as basic as human reproductive rights to let the issue quietly go away. Which is a shame, because there's so much more to women than pink ribbons and abortions.

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