Komen, Planned Parenthood and the Abortion Debate’s False Dichotomy

Komen, Planned Parenthood and the Abortion Debate’s False Dichotomy February 9, 2012

The news of the Susan G. Komen Foundation pulling their funding for Planned Parenthood facilities is no breaking news. Neither is it that Karen Handel, Vice President for Public Affairs, stepped down after the firestorm of publicity and subsequent reversal of position by her organization. Usually I like to respond to issues sooner than this, but I had to sit with my feelings for a while before commenting.

I’ll admit up front a bit of jealousy toward the Komen Foundation for their incredible ability to raise money and awareness for their cause. As a professional fundraiser for nonprofits, it’s hard to knock their track record, though it is frustrating when trying to present other worthy causes to folks, only to find out they’ve already hitched onto the Komen star.

That said, the move to pull funding from such a polarizing group as Planned Parenthood, which is known for performing abortions in many of their clinics, was surprising, especially given Komen’s stellar public relations track record. Someone should have seen this backlash coming, and I suppose that’s why Ms. Handel stepped down.

I want to set the abortion issue aside for a moment and address a few other things that are worth naming out loud. First, Planned Parenthood does a lot of important work for women’s health and reproductive rights. In many cases, were it not for their centers, there would be no alternative for low-income women or those fearing retribution from their families. Their work to offer free and affordable contraception, health screenings, education and counseling are valuable, regardless of how you feel about their stance on abortion.

Second, the Komen funds had nothing to do with abortion either. The funds were specifically restricted for use in performing breast cancer screenings. Anyone would be hard pressed to argue that this is not a necessary and life-saving service. Despite any ideological differences, I would hope folks on any side of the abortion issue could affirm this work for women’s health.

And as for the guilt-by-association argument, it seems to me that religious groups should heed Jesus’ own words: let those who are without sin cast the first stone. Would the Catholic Church agree that people should stop tithing because some priests have been caught molesting innocent children? Should all protestants walk away from religion entirely because some religious leaders were on the wrong side of the civil rights debate? Is it possible that we can see the good that Planned Parenthood does, even if we feel strongly about abortion?

Put another way: where are the abortion opponents when those women seeking help look for assistance and all they can find is Planned Parenthood, aside form the ones outside the clinics holding pictures of dead babies? Where are your clinics?

And as for the abortion debate itself, is it just me, or are there others who have grown weary of the us-versus-them, black-and-white approach to the whole issue? Do pro-life advocates honestly think that people who advocate for choice are “pro-abortion?” Please. And isn’t it fair to say that we could have a more productive discussion if we started with the emotional, spiritual and physical health and rights of the woman in question? In distilling this down to an issue, both sides risk de-humanizing the woman involved. And no matter how you feel about choice or life, that’s an un-Christian attitude.

Let me be clear: NO ONE LIKES ABORTION. If they do, they’re insane. So let’s stop pretending that this is the issue. The dichotomous line drawn by painting anyone not aligned with the pro-life agenda as anti-life or pro-abortion is offensive. But let’s be honest: pro-choice advocates can be just as fundamentalist in their tendency to dehumanize those who disagree with them. Most people don’t fall so clearly into either camp, so let’s stop pretending it’s a clear-cut two sided issue.

The real discussion points have to do with the government’s role in mandating a woman’s rights with respect to her body and the power to create and sustain life she carries within her. For me, this indeed is a God-given gift and should be treated as such. But in trying to stem what many see as violence against the unborn, they are inadvertently (I hope it’s inadvertent) inflicting violence on the woman carrying the baby.

Where we the abortion opponents when the young woman needed counseling? Or advice on other options? Or rape crisis support? Or advocacy for dealing with an abusive male partner? Or if they were born into poverty and perhaps never had the education or financial wherewithal to secure birth control? Or to help her even understand her own reproductive power? Or her strength, integrity and value as a fully embodied (sexuality included) woman?

How many abortions would be avoided, without government intervention, if pro-life advocates were as committed to honoring the lives of girls and women as they are advocating for the unborn?

Abortion is often the end-result of greater social systemic failure. And to focus narrowly on the final result of that failure is to show a lack of regard for the pervasive sin of a culture that continues to disregard the integrity, power and autonomy of its women. It’s like, say, condemning people with AIDS to hell rather than doing the hard work of changing the culture in which such a disease is allowed to flourish.

We have to do better. We Christians are compelled by our faith to do better. God, forgive us for obsessing about the symptoms of our greater sickness, while remaining blind to the desperate need for a cure.

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  • Anonymous

    Where did you read that Nancy Brinker stepped down? I haven’t heard that. Karen Handel is the person who definitely stepped down because she was the one at the center of the controversy. Ms. Handel was a former gubernatorial candidate from Georgia who included in her platform her mission to defund Planned Parenthood.

    •  It was Karen Rangel. It’s corrected in the article. I got the names confused with Ms. Brinker coming forward with a formal apology. Fixed now! Sorry about that.

    •  UGH, Handel, not Rangel. I’m losing my mind today.

  • “Do pro-life advocates honestly think that people who advocate for choice are “pro-abortion?” ” – Unfortunately, yes, some pro-life advocates absolutely do. I have written quite extensively on why I am a pro-choice Christian, and have asked folks not to label me as “pro-abortion.” And inevitably I hear from someone (always someone who identifies as a Christian) who tells me why I am exactly that.

    I will say that I have been in conversation with a number of passionate pro-life folk who do very much believe that they/we should be supporting women and women’s health, and dealing with issues such as poverty and domestic violence that underlie many decisions to abort.

    And I absolutely agree with you that pro-choice folks can dehumanize, demonize, and caricature pro-life folks. Likewise, I’m also really tired of people demonizing and dehumanizing Planned Parenthood as some big  business full of evil people who WANT to give women abortions and make themselves rich.

    Have you heard of a recent study showing that a large percentage of
    Americans identify themselves as both pro-life and pro-choice? It is
    indeed not black and white. I’ve been beating the same drum for a while
    now. And every time I do, I get hateful comments, emails, and tweets (
    every…single…time I write about abortion) from Christians who insist
    that it absolutely is black and white, and I am clearly on the dark
    side of that line.

    •  I have indeed seen those polls, and I can totally understand them. I actually wrote a chapter in my upcoming memoir about that very issue. As Cathleen at Sojourners says, I/we can’t seem to keep ourselves out of the lion’s den. 🙂

      But I’m sure you would agree that the whole reason we, as people of faith, have to talk about this in a more nuanced way is so hopefully we will begin to be more fruitful in our dialogue and work surrounding this matter.

      •  I agree wholeheartedly. Problem is, whenever I say that, I inevitably get a comment  from someone who says, “There is no nuance when it comes to murder.” I find it very, very frustrating. So thanks for being willing to step into these tricky waters.

  • James

    Ellen, I truly don’t understand how Christians can be so-called “pro-choice” on this issue. I get it’s a complex matter, the whole “where does life begin” debate, etc. But I don’t understand how we would leave the decision of life or death of a baby up to another human being, and with no regard to a common, social moral about the matter. We are civilized people, a democracy no less, that get the opportunity to speak to this issue as a whole. This is not Christianity vs. Pagan talk, this is a common basis for morality. Where it likely becomes religious, is in how different people value and view human life. The Peter Singer’s of the world would simply say there is no different in a baby rabbit than there is in human baby: “A rat is a pig is a dog.” This attitude toward life is prevalent, and these are they that, thought they may not be “pro-abortion,” they certain don’t care too much.

    Planned Parenthood receives government funding. They are the largest provider of abortion services. This makes them very controversial, and the org that receives the brunt of the criticism.

    I think Christian does a great job of encouraging “pro-life” Christians to get more involved in the “life” side of things — but that itself is almost an unfair bias, assuming that Christians aren’t involved in their city by offering such services. That they are in the shadow of government-funded big orgs like PP, let’s not forget that there are many services to the poor and underprivileged that are the work of Christians who value life. I’d hate for that point to cause one to assume that “all Christians picket abortion clinics and do nothing else but make themselves feel like they are proclaiming justice simply by echoing an ideology.” There are hands-on, justice-advocating Christians out there.

    Christian’s call is to get believers involved in matters of justice that touch on the more systemic areas, as it related to poverty, brokenness. I would agree. I also think the issue is more complex than just saying systemic. I think it’s a breakdown of community, of family, of a common sense of responsibility as well. It’s both/and. This is where Dems and Repubs speak past each other, even though they may fundamentally have different solutions to the same problems, and earnestly contend for their view.

    PP is probably the leading org that contributes to reducing abortions as well, by offering free birth control and contraceptive. I will give them that. They get the bad and good award. I wish we had more than a few Dateline or investigative reports and first-hand accounts about them being quick to push abortion to young girls, but we don’t. So it’s anecdotal.

    We aren’t entirely sure why Komen dropped funding, though their policy about not funding orgs that are under investigation was cited. They also referenced not associating with polarizing groups, and sticking to their issue and finding ways of providing services without polarizing groups that are known for controversy. I think it was knee-jerk, and because their services funded breast-cancer screening specifically, was a non-issue. But both sides wouldn’t let this go… and now the abortion debate has probably been waged again in every school in America. I honestly think that’s a good thing.

  • Jennifer

    I stand with all of the Classical Feminists, who advocated for women and injustice, and decry abortion as an evil practice of a selfish society. 

  • Jennifer

    “in cases of the mother’s life” is one of those nuances. Perhaps we should find another term that “abortion” for this, since it’s more of an ethical medical dilemma, that still has “valuing life” in the forefront. 

  • Jennifer

    Does the author really think that many pro-choice people aren’t pro-abortion? It’s “their damn reproductive organs” and “they can do what they damn want.” We assume it’s as much a moral dilemma for many pro-choice voters. Do we swim in the same discussion waters on this issue? There are some very vicious people out there who simply don’t value the life of simply a “fetus.” It’s similar to what the other poster wrote about Peter Singer, who ironically enough, is a BioEthics professor. 

  • Matt

    You really need to do your research on alternatives to Planned Parenthood. As someone who has several friends working for these alternatives, I hear from them all the time about how they get so ignored. They always point out that in almost all areas where there is a Planned Parenthood, there is another non-religious organization within walking distance offering the same services. When you ask “where are the abortion opponents when…” the truth is that many are there doing what you claim they aren’t.  When you ask “How many abortions would be avoided, without government intervention, if pro-life advocates were as committed to honoring the lives of girls and women as they are advocating for the unborn?” – I know people that have done this, and they claim that it doesn’t cut back on the number of abortions. These are questions and issues that have been asked and raised before. And the answers aren’t pretty or easy, either.

    • Honest Abe

      Matt?  Why did you write as “Moochelle” on The Hill?  

      “Someone get me da ribs. Dis gonna be good!”  

      Disgrace yourself much?

  • Dherb

    I would like to see a side by side study comparing Planned Parenthoods health care for women against the Catholic version. I would guess PP can’t even come close.

  • I appreciate all the thoughtful discourse, and I’ll readily admit the way I described the pro-life position in my article could lead people to believe that there is NO alternative to PP. This, of course, isn’t true.

    Maybe it would be more accurate for me to suggest placing that energy and those resources into life-giving women’s programs rather than the highly divisive and offensive practice of picketing Planned Parenthood with posters of aborted fetuses. This is what happens in my community, and it evokes a strong reaction, as it’s supposed to.

    I imagine in my mind what a network of health centers as  robust as Planned Parenthood to give folks the option, or better, placing them where Planned Parenthood has no presence. Ultimately, I believe we all want largely the same thing (reduce abortions while honoring the needs and value of the woman), but we have to move beyond the dichotomous shouting match to do so.

  • Waylon Campbell

    If you are pro-life or not shouldn’t be the issue here.  The fact is people relate Komen as Breast cancer awareness and research.  Why tarnish your image which could hurt the cause.  As for organizations that help fund abortions if they were up front with what they were funding they would not get near as much money donated.  As for government  agencies funding abortions that is just wrong because tax paying individuals have no decision is this matter.  I myself I’m pro-life but I’m not a poser or a protester, I’m just a independent thinker.