Planned Parenthood, Social Media, and a Win for Women's Health

The recent reversal by the Susan G. Komen foundation of its decision to no longer fund grants to Planned Parenthood has, rightly, been hailed by many as a victory for the galvanizing power of the Internet. This comes not long after similar instances of Internet-fueled wins, such as the reversal of Bank of America's decision to impose a $5 debit card fee late last year, and the derailing of the Stop Online Piracy Act in January.

But the organizational power of social media isn't the only notable element in the Komen decision. Also important was what fueled people to utilize social media in the first place: the refusal of millions of Americans to have every element of their lives forced into the left/right Washington meat grinder.

This wasn't, as some are claiming, a political victory for Planned Parenthood or its supporters (among whom I count myself). It was a victory for women's health, which should not be a political issue in the first place. Komen initially yielded to those who want to put women's health into the confined left/right political arena, and the victory was that the public said no, and took it out of that arena -- and back into the realm of science and facts and medicine and health care and saving lives. Which is right where it belongs.

Of course, the social media element in this story can't be overstated. It's what gave the public the power to fight back against this overt politicization. In fact, the story is a case study in how radically social media have changed the way institutions relate to those they purport to serve. And it's not just by giving the public a microphone -- but also by serving as a real-time X-ray machine able to see through and vet motives and decision-making rationales.

From the start, it was obvious that Komen's stated rationale for cutting off Planned Parenthood was utterly disingenuous. And reporting by HuffPost's Laura Bassett has confirmed that Komen's original explanation for the change -- a new policy about not giving grants to institutions under investigation that just so happened to include Planned Parenthood -- was, in fact, expressly designed to reverse-engineer a reason to stop funding Planned Parenthood.

After Komen's initial announcement, suspicion immediately fell on the hiring, less than a year ago, of Karen Handel as the foundation's Vice President for Public Policy. Handel, as you may know by now, ran unsuccessfully for governor of Georgia in 2010 on a platform that included explicit opposition to choice and, in particular, Planned Parenthood -- writing on her campaign blog that she does "not support the mission of Planned Parenthood."

According to Bassett's reporting, the overlap between Handel's ideas about Planned Parenthood and Komen's new policy wasn't a coincidence. "Karen Handel was the prime instigator of this effort, and she herself personally came up with investigation criteria," a source, who requested anonymity, told Bassett. "She said, 'If we just say it's about investigations, we can defund Planned Parenthood and no one can blame us for being political.'"

Actually, as it turns out, a lot of people could. And did. As Bassett notes, anti-choice groups have for years been pressuring the foundation to sever involvement with Planned Parenthood. According to Bassett's source, "Handel's internal strategy was... to exaggerate those attacks and use them to convince the leadership that funding Planned Parenthood was a political liability." But, in believing those exaggerated attacks, the foundation underestimated the desire among its supporters that breast cancer not be politicized.

And what enraged so many wasn't just the consequences of the new policy, but the dishonesty of it. The policy might sound innocuous, but allowing grants to be denied to any group under investigation by any local, state, or federal authority would effectively give politicians -- many of whom have virtually unilateral power to launch investigations -- the ability to politicize a private foundation's grant making. The policy opened the door for politicians to affect Planned Parenthood's funding without having to take direct responsibility for doing so.

The groups that had been pressuring Komen to cut ties to Planned Parenthood were the same ones applauding Rep. Cliff Stearns, the anti-Planned Parenthood Florida Republican who opened the investigation into the group last year.

As a source told the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg: "The rule was created to give the board of directors the excuse to stop the funding of Planned Parenthood. It was completely arbitrary. If they hadn't come up with this particular rule, they would have come up with something else in order to separate themselves from Planned Parenthood."

Making the nature of the new policy even more apparent was the fact that Komen is currently giving $7.5 million for cancer research to Penn State -- which just so happens to be under investigation, but with no threat of its funding being cut off.

The days in which an institution could communicate with its supporters by sending out a press release based on bogus reasoning and then call it a day are over. Social media have raised the bar for transparency and engagement. Komen sullied the very thing its supporters didn't want sullied -- and, on top of that, rubbed salt in the wound with a phony excuse.

Non-profit marketing consultant Kivi Leroux Miller did a "quick count" of Twitter traffic shortly after the initial announcement and found sentiment running 80 to 1 against it. By "continuing to pretend that this has nothing to do with a red-hot social issue, they are alienating a big part of their constituency," wrote Miller, who also called the episode a "communications debacle."

And though Komen reversed its decision -- though whether Planned Parenthood will continue to receive grants is still unclear -- the organization is still not owning up to it. "We have been distressed at the presumption that the changes made to our funding criteria were done for political reasons or to specifically penalize Planned Parenthood, " wrote founder Nancy Brinker in a statement. "They were not."

Does anybody believe that at this point?

She goes on: "We urge everyone who has participated in this conversation across the country over the last few days to help us move past this issue. We do not want our mission marred or affected by politics -- anyone's politics."

But that's just it -- it wasn't a conversation. The real conversation was apparently held in the proverbial back rooms, and the results, framed by bogus rationales, simply announced to supporters. A real conversation could have started with something like, "There are some in our organization who are uncomfortable with our ties to Planned Parenthood, what do you think?" I think their supporters would have vocally responded and, hopefully, the foundation would have continued giving grants to Planned Parenthood. Instead, they are now immersed in feelings of betrayal about the backdoor politicization of women's health care.

This is not, of course, the only attempt to politicize women's health, nor does this victory mean vigilance is no longer required. As Peggy Drexler blogged on HuffPost, the episode is but "a spit of rain from a passing cloud compared to the massive storm front forming in the chambers of the Supreme Court." She's talking about the legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act, and the possible consequences for the bill's many provisions safeguarding women's health. Depending on the outcome, "women will win big or suffer badly," she writes. "Like Komen, the debate will have little to do with their needs, or the quality of their care."

But the most eloquent -- and gutsy and moving -- demand to keep politics out of women's health comes from the maker of this video, who, as she bares the scars from the surgery to treat the cancer she's still fighting, says: "Do you see politics on my chest? Do you see Republican, Democrat, Tea Party or Independent anywhere on my chest? I don't."

Neither do I.

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