The XX Factor

Komen Sheds Handel, But Will It End the Firestorm?

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) speaks in support of the Susan G. Komen reversal of a decision to cut off grants to Planned Parenthood

Stephen Brashear/Getty Images.

In the most unsurprising development so far of the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure P.R. meltdown, Karen Handel, who was appointed Komen’s vice president of public policy after losing a bid as governor of Georgia, has stepped down in order to get some of the heat off the breast cancer charity. Handel was widely believed to be the force behind Komen’s attempts to cater to anti-choice activists by defunding breast exams at Planned Parenthood, and while there were attempts to deny this during Komen’s disastrous P.R. clean-up campaign, anonymous insiders told Laura Bassett of the Huffington Post that Handel was, in fact, the source of the pressure.

Getting rid of Handel isn’t going to solve Komen’s problems, however. Stepping back a bit, it’s easy to see that Komen’s status as a corporate-friendly, nonpartisan, untouchable charity was always untenable in the long run. Komen’s strategy since its beginning was to frame breast cancer as an apolitical issue, where left and right could come together in support of women’s health without all that nasty bickering over sex and who has the legal right to control women’s bodies. It was an admirable goal; women’s health care shouldn’t be politicized and women should be free to seek whatever care they need without culture warriors riling people up about dirty ladies with their dirty lady bits.

Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. We live in a world where female sexuality so alarms a loud minority of our population that it insists on banning abortion, restricting contraception, keeping young women from accessing the HPV vaccine, and having anti-contraception propaganda taught in schools. Komen escaped notice while the fear-the-lady-bits brigade was mostly interested in abortion, but now that they’re branching out in earnest–attacking employees of Catholic-owned hospitals and universities who want equal rights to contraception coverage as people fortunate enough to work for people who aren’t religious fanatics, for instance–Komen’s stance of “leave boobs out of it” wasn’t going to fly anymore. Women’s bodies are a fertile ground for right-wing demagoguery. Anyone who works with women’s health is a target in this environment; it’s just a matter of time before you’re forced by anti-choice pressure to choose sides.

Komen’s mistake was choosing the right when forced to make a choice. There’s just no sustainable fundraising strategy for a women’s health care organization that’s on the books as only being for women’s health care some of the time. They realize that now, thus the shedding of Handel. But I’m skeptical that it’s going to solve their problems.