Two Can Play at That: What Komen Can Teach Us about Boycotts (Updated)

Breast Cancer vs. Abortion

The last week was one of the most eventful, and yet most uneventful weeks in recent pro-life history. Here’s the condensed version:

On Tuesday, January 31, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation announced that they would no longer give grants to Planned Parenthood. Pro-life advocates cheered, donated money to Komen, and sent them messages of encouragement. Pro-choice advocates booed, donated money to Planned Parenthood, and sent Komen messages of discouragement.

A few days later, Komen announced that they would continue giving grants to Planned Parenthood. Pro-life advocates booed and accused pro-choice advocates of lying and bullying. Pro-choice advocates cheered and accused pro-life advocates of lying and being insensitive to breast cancer.

Now most of the nation hates Komen, Planned Parenthood has received a huge boost in donations on top of Komen’s returning grants, and pro-life advocates have to discern what this means for their movement.

Perhaps a good place for the Church to begin its soul-searching in this drama’s aftermath is with the activist tactic that shaped the drama: boycotting.

What Happened?

By most accounts, the blow-up over Komen’s funding of Planned Parenthood began last year when LifeWay Christian Resources recalled a pink Bible they sold which benefited Komen, due to complaints about Komen’s relationship with Planned Parenthood. In a statement, LifeWay said:

Though we have assurances that Komen’s funds are used only for breast cancer screening and awareness, it is not in keeping with LifeWay’s core values to have even an indirect relationship with Planned Parenthood.

This action undoubtedly put some pressure on Komen to end ties with Planned Parenthood, but it wasn’t the only source of pressure. As WORLD Magazine’s Marvin Olasky pointed out, Life Decisions International might have also influenced Komen’s decisions to cut funding, since Komen had been on their boycott list. In a blog post released after Komen cut their funding, LDI appears to take some credit for the foundation’s change in policy:

Many people are rushing to take credit for the Komen decision, including some who were thoroughly opposed to our boycott… While a handful of individuals played key roles, the real heroes are the countless numbers of pro-life activists and organizations that have continued to pressure the charity over the years.

Similarly, LifeNews.com implies that pro-lifers deserve some credit for Komen’s decision:

After years of protests and criticism from pro-life advocates, the biggest breast cancer organization, Susan G. Komen for the Cure has announced it is halting further grants and donations to the Planned Parenthood abortion business.

[Note the deceptive language in this statement. Komen made donations to Planned Parenthood's breast cancer work, not their "abortion business."]

Fox News reported that the Alliance Defense Fund “praised Komen”:

…for seeing the contradiction between its lifesaving work and its relationship with an abortionist that has ended millions of lives.

And finally, Slate’s Rachael Larimore wrote:

[T]he Komen foundation would not have acted as it did if it had not been hearing similar complaints from pro-lifers for years. It could not have been a decision that it made lightly. I’m grateful that it listened to the concerns of men and women who told them they would not donate to Komen as long as it had a relationship with the nation’s largest abortion provider.

It’s clear that LifeWay, LDI, and “countless numbers of pro-life activists and organizations” had been pressuring Komen for years to sever ties with Planned Parenthood. Furthermore, many of these groups believed that Komen’s initial decision was influenced by their boycotts and public criticism. These groups had good reason to believe that they were influential, since Komen initially indicated that they cut funding to Planned Parenthood because of an ongoing investigation regarding the illegal use of funds to provide abortions, which happend to be the primary concern pro-life advocates had with donating to Komen: 

Komen spokeswoman Leslie Aun said the cutoff results from the charity’s newly adopted criteria barring grants to organizations that are under investigation by local, state or federal authorities. According to Komen, this applies to Planned Parenthood because it’s the focus of an inquiry launched by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., seeking to determine whether public money was improperly spent on abortions.

Even Planned Parenthood and its supporters agreed about the reason Komen severed ties with them. From USA Today:

Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, has depicted Stearns’ probe as politically motivated and said she was dismayed that it had contributed to Komen’s decision to halt the grants to PPFA affiliates.

“It’s hard to understand how an organization with whom we share a mission of saving women’s lives could have bowed to this kind of bullying,” Richards told the Associated Press. “It’s really hurtful.”

The story quickly spread that Komen had given in to the pressure from the pro-life movement, which resulted in a backlash from the media, politicians, and former Komen supporters. This led Komen to release a new statement saying that the primary reason that they would stop giving Planned Parenthood grants was because they did not offer mammograms. Rather, they only referred women to places that did mammograms and then reimbursed the women from Komen’s grants.

This motivation seemed far less political and quite reasonable: why give money to an organization that would only have to pass it along to another organization? That can’t be efficient. So now, Komen’s goal was to make better use of their funds so that they could do more to help women, but it was too late. The narrative had already been written.

The Ironic Responses

The way Christian and conservative groups responded to Komen’s second statement is revealing. They immediately began criticizing Planned Parenthood and the media for accusing Komen of making a political rather than a logistical decision.

Casey Mattox, Alliance Defense Fund:

Despite Komen’s plea that “[m]aking this issue political or leveraging it for fundraising purposes would be a disservice to women,” Planned Parenthood immediately made this issue political and leveraged it for fundraising purposes, accusing Komen of bowing to political pressure.

Wizbang:

Imagine that. An organization whose sole purpose is to fight against breast cancer wanting to give their money to organizations that actually aide in fighting breast cancer… So it seems that the narrative that Susan G. Komen is some sort of right-wing extremist, anti-abortion group doesn’t really hold water, now does it?

Randall K. O’Bannon, National Right to Life News Today:

[W]hen Planned Parenthood and their media machine swung into action, they talked not about what Komen’s Brinker began with in her video — that “We have the highest responsibility to ensure that these donor dollars make the biggest impact possible” — but that PPFA was ‘alarmed and saddened’ at the decision, which they attributed to “political pressure”.

Please catch the irony here: those who praised Komen for responding to pro-life complaints by cutting funding to Planned Parenthood were now mocking Planned Parenthood and “lefties” for accusing Komen of responding to pro-life complaints by cutting funding to Planned Parenthood. While I’m confident that pro-choice advocates lied and used deceptive language during this ordeal, I am much more troubled by some of the arrogance and deception coming from Christians who ought to know better.

The irony, unfortunately, only gets worse. Once Planned Parenthood supporters began to complain to Komen and threaten a boycott, Christian and conservative groups called them “bullies.”

Douglas R. Scott, Jr., president of Life Decisions International (LDI):

Pro-life people want all corporations, be them for-profit or not-for-profit, to stop supporting Planned Parenthood. Failure to do so will result in a boycott. We are not demanding that they fund pro-life groups. Pro-abortion apologists, on the other hand, want all corporations to give money to Planned Parenthood. Failure to do so will result in a boycott. And once a corporation begins to support Planned Parenthood it better not even think about having a change of heart. Isn’t that extortion? If these people truly cared about the health of women, they would accept the Komen decision and urge Planned Parenthood to seek private funding.

Rod Dreher, The American Conservative:

The liberal blacklist. Of course I support anybody’s right to withhold money or approval from any organization for any reason. But let’s just be clear what’s going on here. Komen broke ranks, and for the cultural left, that cannot be understood, forgiven, or overlooked; Komen must be ruined. Nothing Komen or Nancy Brinker has ever done for women in 30 years matters to these people. This is war.

Elizabeth Scalia, The Anchoress:

Yesterday’s insane reaction to Komen, by the press and the government gave me a mental image of Moloch, enraged and stomping and roaring because there was a threat of less meat coming to his fire.

Today, Moloch is appeased; the media’s heartbeat and respiration are returning to normal. They and their pals in DC can take a nice, deep cleansing breath and sit back and smile, understanding what they have just demonstrated to themselves, their enemies and the world: you don’t have to fall in love; just fall in line, or you will fall, altogether.

The Day of the Bully has dawned.

The message here seems to be that it’s okay for pro-life groups to boycott Komen because of its relationship with Planned Parenthood, but it’s not okay for pro-choice advocates to boycott Komen for its relationship (or lack thereof) with Planned Parenthood. It is just when we do it, but bullying when you do, both sides seem to think.

In the end, Komen caved to the greater pressure of Planned Parenthood’s supporters and returned (probably) to its policy of funding Planned Parenthood.

A Moratorium on Boycotts 

Everyone wants to cry “Foul!” when the Other Side uses its power to force its will on someone, but when we do it, it’s not only justified, it’s heroic. And I think this impulse, this feeling that it is somehow unjust for the Other Side to use its power to influence private organizations, has some truth to it.

Christian activism tends to take two forms, political and economic. The basic method in both cases is the same, though: we work for justice and goodness by using our votes and/or dollars to influence those in power. This is, after all, the way our country, with its free market democracy, works.

While I don’t want to argue that we should totally abandon political action or dismiss money’s influence, I do think that the Komen situation reveals the dangerous nature of attempts to force positive change through coercion. This kind of change is fickle and passing. If we can force Komen to change their policies with our boycott, then what is to stop another, bigger boycott from forcing them to change back? As we have seen with Komen, the answer is “nothing.” Whether it is through votes or dollars, coercing someone to accept our position is nihilistic: it suggests that real change — change of heart and mind — is impossible, or unlikely, and so the safest bet is to make it profitable to adopt our beliefs.

Perhaps instead of using our power to influence our country, we ought to offer the world an alternative that persuades with its beauty. Russell Moore touched on this in his Christianity Today article:

We don’t need a Christian foundation to compete with the merchants of death. We don’t need one more coalition with enough signatures to counter the threatened boycotts of the abortion rights peddlers. And we sure don’t need to sell bumper stickers with a line drawn through a pink ribbon.What we need, first of all, are churches who recognize that this isn’t all that surprising. Mammon is a jealous god, and he’s armed to the teeth. We need to create the kind of counter-culture that constantly shines the light of Christ wherever these false gods exist in our own affections. And then we need to demonstrate what it means to believe that a person’s life consists in more than the abundance of his possessions.

How do we create this counter-culture that Moore mentions? I think of efforts like Care Net‘s pregnancy centers, which give support to women with unwanted pregnancies. Missions like this work to demonstrate Christ’s love by caring for and meeting the needs of others and doing the hard work of providing alternatives to abortions.

I’m not arguing that Christians should not have initially boycotted Komen, nor that we should never use boycotts, but I do think that this mess shows this tactic’s deeply problematic nature. Rather than devote time, money, and energy to forcing Komen to cut ties to Planned Parenthood, rather than complain because the Other Side used its influence to get Komen to recant, and rather than complain about the (probably very real) media bias, let’s offer the world an alternative that actively demonstrates Christ’s love.

Update 02/08/12

On Tuesday the 7th, Karen Handel, vice president at the Susan G. Koman Foundation, resigned and spoke to Fox news about the controversy with Planned Parenthood. In her interview, she condemned Planned Parenthood and their supporters for their backlash and pressure:

All of us should be saddened that an outside organization will put this kind of pressure on another organization around their processes and granting and how they do it and to whom they are going to grant.

An outside organization putting pressure on another organization (Komen) around their processes and granting? Like Life Decisions International and many other pro-life groups pressuring Komen to not give Planned Parenthood grants?  Lylah M. Alphonse at Yahoo! gets the hypocrisy here:

But she also admitted that long-standing outside pressure from pro-life groups who objected to Planned Parenthood’s abortion services triggered the decision to change the grant criteria. Rather than criticize these groups for pressuring Komen, however, Handel — who last week described Planned Parenthood as a “pro abortion group” and who ran for governor of Georgia on a pro-life platform promising to eliminate state grants to the women’s health organization — told Fox News that Komen needed to avoid the controversy.

This exchange illustrates the heart of my argument beautifully. Handel seems to be blissfully unaware that if she condemns pressure from “outside organizations” she’s also condemning the very movement that helped to inspire Komen to cut Planned Parenthood to begin with. It’s “pressure” when they do it and “controversy” when we do it.

Again, I’m not opposed to Christians choosing to withhold giving to a charity that they believe would use their money to support immoral actions. But we have to acknowledge that when we play the game of political and economy power–especially when we organize and try collectively to compel others to follow our morality–there are other, bigger, less ethical players with a lot more experience waiting to teach us a lesson. We can complain all we want about them using their influence to pressure Komen, and how unfair it is, but we’d be much better off finding more effective and winsome ways of promoting and defending Life.

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • Noah R

    For a while now, I’ve been thinking along the same lines, in that while yes, we should not completely abandon the political front, our focus should not be that of forcing the government/organization/corporation to change their ways, rather we are to spread the gospel and show grace to individuals.

    It may just be me, but I have a hard to trying to find the grace of God in the words of Christan and Conservative groups.

    I admit I myself am not the most knowledgeable individual on the Bible, but didn’t Jesus choose to change the hearts of the people through grace? As opposed to forcing the Roman Government, Pharisees, etc to change their ways and bring moral change from the top down, Jesus spoke to the people and changed them by grace, not by laws.

    Any thoughts?

  • J Raymond Kelley

    The following are some quick thoughts which, depending on time commitments, I may follow up in more detail.

    I do think that the title is far more ambitious in its implied goal than the article actually achieves. Based on my watching the drama unfold, I am left to wonder if there was anything really new to be learned after having read this commentary. I honestly do not mean this to sound snarky nor do I dismiss any of the information you provided in the commentary.

    I do wish that you had provided more examples of affirmative Christian response rather than selecting simply one which you connected only to the abortion issue. I am not denying the logical connection. But, if those who railed against the decision by the Komen foundation are correct about the harm to the women served at Planned Parenthood, it seems to me that Christians who understand the need to address the legitimate non-abortion needs but are concerned about the commingling of dollars destroying the identity of their funds intended only for non-abortion purposes, establishing, maintaining, and publicizing organizations that provide for those non-abortion related needs currently being met by Planned Parenthood seems to be imperative. I can only speculate how differently this might have played out with the public in general had the Komen foundation made this decision during the normal annual review of applications and allocations rather than in a poorly-conceived political ploy to terminate funding already promised, especially were there to have been a dollar for dollar commitment to organizations that do not provide abortion services but which do provide the essential non-abortion services otherwise provided by Planned Parenthood.

    Do not get me wrong. I am appalled whenever I see people or organizations that co-opt the self identification of “Christian” engaging in behavior that the Messiah would condemn, not simply outright lying but also manipulation of selective presentation of nuanced truth with the intent to deceive. I already knew that non-Christians engaged in this type of behavior. I already knew that people claiming to be Christian engaged in this type of behavior as well – some intentionally (especially in pursuit of political power or economic self benefit) and some with a grossly negligent disregard for the truth and the responsibility of each Christian to discern truth (e.g., forwarding chain e-mails containing blatant falsehoods the truth of which often can be fact-checked by a simple Google search).

    I do think that better discussion than has occurred in the knee-jerk moments of the immediacy of the news cycle should be encouraged, and I commend you for wanting to have that discussion.

  • J Raymond Kelley

    I need to correct some poor articulation on my part. The timing and manner of the original announcement of the withholding of funds by the Komen foundation appears to have been outside the normal application and approval process. I do not know that funds already committed but not already disbursed were going to be withheld immediately. What was announced was a termination of “future” funding, The various reports in the news cycle seem to allow for an understanding that, because of the putative investigation into Planned Parenthood, funds already allocated but not yet delivered to Planned Parenthood were going to be withheld, especially given some reports made after the Komen foundation reversed itself which indicated that this reversal did not guarantee future funding to Planned Parenthood. I do not wish my comments above to add more to the confusion of fact in the midst of presenting an opinion.

  • joel

    moore’s article and your last two paragraphs sum the thing up for me. i happen to be the president on a local care net board and i could never put into words how remarkably the staff and volunteers impact the lives of the clients. these types of works are to come along side the local church and be an arm to the body. pp would have no sustainable business model if the church were really engaged in being good samaritans as biblically defined.

    now we use tools rather than weapons in the flesh, things like time, money, possessions and skills to provide practical aid to those in crises. we use weapons rather than tools in our spiritual warfare/prayer. lives saved both physical and spiritual, children adopted, needs met and families restored to even helping others. many of these centers need your readers’ help in ‘all of the above’ fashion. go and do!!! good info alan.

  • Mike Lane

    Your analysis is way off base. You ignore the vast and critical distinction between demands made by Planned Parenthood and those by pro-life groups. As LDI’s Scott said, “Pro-life people want all corporations, be them for-profit or not-for-profit, to stop supporting Planned Parenthood. Failure to do so will result in a boycott. We are not demanding that they fund pro-life groups. Pro-abortion apologists, on the other hand, want all corporations to give money to Planned Parenthood. Failure to do so will result in a boycott. And once a corporation begins to support Planned Parenthood it better not even think about having a change of heart. Isn’t that extortion? If these people truly cared about the health of women, they would accept the Komen decision and urge Planned Parenthood to seek private funding.”

    It is certainly legitimate for any outside group to pressure Komen, which seeks and accepts funds from the general public. But, as Scott pointed out, the difference is that Planned Parenthood is demanding money–or else. “And once a corporation begins to support Planned Parenthood it better not even think about having a change of heart.”

    Imagine the overriding principle involved here. Regardless of which groups or individuals were effective in pressuring Komen to change, no one should be demanding that funds be given to Planned Parenthood and “punishing” Komen if it decides against doing so. What if a pro-life group were to demand that Komen give an equal amount of money to pro-life projects that it has given to Planned Parenthood? Doing so would be inherently wrong. I noticed this statement on LDI’s website: “We do not want anyone entity to fund Planned Parenthood, but if a private foundation does so it certainly has that right. An individual who does so in his/her own name also has that right. But any entity that gets money from the general public (charities, governments, corporations) is in a completely different category. While they, too, have the ‘right’ to do so, pro-life people also have the ‘right’ to say, ‘but you will not do it with my money–I choose to spend my money elsewhere.”

    Finally, your analysis is written from a position of ignorance and supposition. LDI was involved in the matter way back in November–long before Planned Parenthood or anyone else knew what was going on. Komen contacted LDI to find out how the decision should be executed. Unfortunately, Komen chose to ignore LDI’s advice. (LDI has been doing this kind of work for 20 years and, so far, 282 corporations have stopped supporting Planned Parenthood, which has cost Planned Parenthood $40 million!) Komen’s president, Nancy Brinker, has personal ties to Planned Parenthood and felt obligated to let them know what was going to happen. As a “thanks for the many years of past support,” Planned Parenthood called its allies in the media–and we all know what happened from there. When “the going got tough,” she was poorly equipped to handle it. After all, she was used to being publicly praised, not criticized.

    I have been a member of LDI for 6 years, so I had an advantage when it came to knowing what was going on. There is no hypocrisy when you know the facts and consider the important and fundamental principles involved.

  • Alan Noble

    Mike,

    So if I say, “Don’t spend your money on X, or I’ll stop giving you money,” it’s a justified act, but if I say, “Spend your money on X, or I’ll stop giving you money, ” then it’s extortion? Why? In both cases, the consumer is simply informing Komen the conditions on which they will give. Isn’t that capitalism?

  • Mike Lane

    It is extortion if YOU demand that someone give money to YOU and YOU bring about negative consequences (punishment/retaliation) if they choose not to do so. Organized crime became very good at this kind of coercion. You must give ME money–or else.

    It would not be extortion if YOU demand that someone give money to a hospital with which you are flatly unaffiliated. This is because you do not benefit in any way.

    The moment Planned Parenthood took steps to bring pressure on Komen it engaged in extortion, not to mention a campaign of disinformation, because Planned Parenthood would get the money.

    It is not the actions of the consumer that determine what constitutes extortion, but the actions of the person/group that will benefit through such actions.

    I believe it is legitimate to demand that a group/corporation NOT fund certain groups/activities. (What if one chose to fund the Klan?) I believe it is illegitimate to demand, with the threat of consequences, that a group/corporation DO fund certain groups/activities. (If they funded pro-life groups it would be quite reasonable for pro-abortion activists to demand that it end.)

    By the way, why  no one mentioned that Planned Parenthood has more than $400 million in a savings account, which means what little it does in the area of breast health would not have been impacted by the Komen decision, is beyond me.

    God bless you.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/pgepps pgepps

    I think you’re right that the rhetoric of majoritarian violence used in many such cases is wrong, or at least cloying to the message. I think Mike does make a good point about the asymmetry of funding, here, though it wouldn’t tip the scales. I want to point out a different asymmetry, here; it is one of who actually is morally right.

    See, if there’s any point to acting on the basis of revelation, it is that it takes us *out of* a neutral, secular, market, values-based approach to this sort of thing. Devotion is an economical act against the secular norms of economy; consider when God demanded the Israelites turn over every firstborn, whether livestock or human, to Him (by destruction or lifelong vocation), or pay (real, hard-earned, could-have-been-spent-on-taxes-or-healthcare-or-a-spare-chicken money) to enjoy them as “theirs.” When we put gold on an altar, we consecrate the altar, and the most concrete, obvious, empirical effect of doing that is to make that gold (and the stones of the altar, etc.) entirely useless for trade; they lose their economic value because they have been devoted to God. Go look through the OT, and follow out through NT usage, how “devotion” has to do basically with rendering a thing useless for secular purposes, and only consequently (and not in all cases) turning it to some preferred religious-secular purpose.

    At its worst, the logic of the boycott is just a power play with money. But at its best, it is a defective expression of the consequence that God’s claim on all things–including our preferred coffee (or the most convenient place to get it)–is prior to and supervenes on ours. Therefore, beyond the logic that “we’ll just take our ball and go home” (which is, if silly and petulant, not wholly wrong) lies the logic “if we entrust money to you, or do profitable business with you, we do so only to the extent that we are not turning against God’s purposes what God has entrusted us with.” That won’t get you out of paying taxes in general, but it certainly should make you consider who you do business with. It may not be clear to any one of us that any particular case is decisive–but if we can’t articulate any logic by which it would be decisive at some time, then we aren’t committed to our faith being a real-world, consequential affair.

  • bonnie

    Just a little note here about this quote: “Note the deceptive language in this statement. Komen made donations to Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer work, not their ‘abortion business.’”

    Funds are fungible, as they say. So yes, any donation to Planned Parenthood supports the abortion business.


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