Susan G. Komen’s Moral Dilemma

Pro-life advocates remain troubled by the group’s ties to Planned Parenthood, and its denial of links between breast cancer and abortion and the use of oral contraceptives.

NEW YORK — As a two-time breast-cancer survivor, Eve Sanchez Silver once supported the Susan G. Komen organization in her personal fight against a disease affecting hundreds of thousands of U.S. women each year.

But when she found out while serving on the group’s National Hispanic/Latina Advisory Council that Komen was giving money to Planned Parenthood, the nation’s No. 1 abortion provider, she knew she had a problem.

“Here was a breast-health organization — a very life-affirming organization, from my perspective — funding an organization that essentially kills people. I couldn’t understand why they thought that was okay.”

Sanchez Silver, a retired medical-research analyst from Red Bank, N.J., resigned from the advisory council in 2004 and now advises people to direct their donations for breast-cancer research somewhere other than Komen. She recommends giving to local organizations, provided they are not involved with Planned Parenthood and do not perform abortions.

However, her concerns with Komen go well beyond the Planned Parenthood connection. As someone who had two abortions before her diagnosis, Sanchez Silver is troubled by Komen’s denial of abortion as a cause of breast cancer.

On its website, Komen lists abortion, along with caffeine and cellphones, as among the factors that do not increase breast-cancer risk, saying, “Although there was some debate in the past about the link between abortion (also called induced abortion) and breast-cancer risk, research clearly shows no link between the two.”

The position ignores research to the contrary, as does the organization’s stance that states current or recent use of oral contraceptives only slightly increases the risk of breast cancer.

In “The Breast Cancer Epidemic: 10 Facts,” published in the August issue of Linacre Quarterly, journal of the Catholic Medical Association, Dr. A. Patrick Schneider II, a family physician who practiced obstetrics for 10 years, and four other physicians make the case that oral contraceptives are an established risk factor for breast cancer.

They also point out that there is worldwide evidence for a link between induced abortion and breast cancer. This, they say, is bolstered by studies in countries like Bangladesh, where breast cancer is almost unheard of and where almost all women are married, have had a child by the time they are 20 years old and typically do not take oral contraceptives or have abortions. 

“Komen cherry-picks the studies it reports on [regarding] the breast-cancer risks of induced abortion and oral contraceptives,” said Karen Malec of the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer, an international women’s organization based in Hoffman Estates, Ill.


Avoiding Contrary Analyses

Malec said the studies her group cites as evidence of abortion as a risk factor are not even discussed on the Komen website. For example, she said, Komen mentions only one of three meta-analyses (studies of studies in which results are pooled) on abortion and breast cancer.

The one it does report, the 2004 Oxford meta-analysis by Valerie Beral and colleagues, denies that abortion raises breast cancer risk, while admitting that pregnancies resulting in a birth are known to reduce a woman’s long-term risk of developing breast cancer. Malec said the study has been heavily criticized in eight medical journals.

The American Life League also points to Komen’s denial of the abortion-breast cancer link as a reason it considers the organization unworthy of support from pro-life advocates. Among the other reasons the organization cites are Komen’s continued giving of grants to Planned Parenthood as well as to embryonic stem-cell research centers. Komen denies it is funding embryonic stem-cell research, but it does not rule out the possibility of supporting such research in the future.

The American Life League says pro-life donors looking for alternatives can consider the Breast Cancer Prevention Institute, which was started in 1999 by Dr. Joel Brind, a scientist, and three physicians, including breast-cancer surgeon Dr. Angela Lanfranchi; the Polycarp Institute, which supports medical research consistent with the ethical and moral guidelines of the Catholic Church; and the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer.


Pervasive Presence

Despite the availability of such alternatives and information about Komen, many Catholics and pro-life advocates continue to give to Komen or are confused about whether it is an organization worth supporting. This is not surprising, given Komen’s pervasive presence, especially during Breast Cancer Awareness Month each October, and its reputation as the go-to organization in the fight against breast cancer.

Komen supporters also argue that, whatever the group’s flaws, they are outweighed by the good it does, pointing out that even Catholic hospitals accept funds from the organization. From an ethical and moral perspective, however, taking money from Komen is not considered the same as donating to the organization and knowing the funds may be used in a way that conflicts with Church teaching.

As Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk of the National Catholic Bioethics Center told Reuters in a 2012 article about Komen, “The concern is at the front end, when you’re donating money to an entity that’s taking that money and using it in a contradictory way.”

Those who donate to Komen also claim that not all local chapters send money to Planned Parenthood, an issue raised in 2011, when former Toledo, Ohio, Bishop Leonard Blair, now archbishop of Hartford, Conn., banned parishes and parochial schools from raising money for Komen “in order to avoid even the possibility of cooperation in morally unacceptable activities.”

At the time, the executive director of the local Komen chapter, who sits on the board of a Toledo Catholic girls’ academy, fired back, saying her chapter had never given money to Planned Parenthood.

However, Andrea Rader, Komen spokeswoman, said 25% of the money raised by local Komen chapters is sent to the national office for research.

Sanchez Silver said this means there is no guarantee the funds might not end up at Planned Parenthood. “An organization may have two different pockets [for funds], but it’s the same pair of pants,” she said.

As for the argument that Komen does a lot of good, Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), who attempted to help the group sever ties with Planned Parenthood in 2011, acknowledged, “They’re not a bad organization.” However, he continued, “They’re caught in a very unhealthy relationship with an evil organization they found it impossible to break away from.”

This, he said, sullies all the good work they do, adding that this is partly why they wanted out of the relationship with Planned Parenthood.

Jim Sedlak, vice president of the American Life League, agreed.

“Whatever good that Komen does is tainted because of its insistence on supporting Planned Parenthood.” Sedlak said Planned Parenthood is antithetical to Catholic teaching in its promotion of contraception, abortion and premarital sexual activity.

Furthermore, apart from the federal government, he said, “Planned Parenthood has two primary ways of making money: the sale of contraceptives and abortions, both of which contribute to breast cancer.” 


Planned Parenthood’s Retribution

Komen’s effort to cut ties with Planned Parenthood met with a firestorm of opposition that the breast-cancer group completely underestimated, added Ruse, who had been consulted by the organization because of his connections to the pro-life movement. As part of this, he said, Komen was working on removing information from the website that denied the link between abortion and breast cancer and minimized the risk of oral contraceptives.

However, he said, “It also came at a time in our national politics, right at the beginning of the ‘war on women’ story. ... It fed into a larger narrative.” As a result, he continued, “[Komen was] completely outclassed and not prepared to fight this kind of fight. ... It was simply a bloodbath.”

Within four days, Komen caved, and everybody who was on staff and working toward cutting ties with Planned Parenthood has since left the organization.

In 2013, Komen named Judith Salerno CEO and president. Salerno was executive director and chief operating officer of the Institute of Medicine in 2011, when it recommended including sterilization and contraceptive services in the list of preventive services for women that private health-insurance plans would be mandated to cover under Obamacare.

Although Ruse said the battle took the wind out of the sails of a lot of people, he believes there are still organizations advocating a boycott of Komen and that he does not think people should give to the group. “They should resume putting pressure on them to get out of any relationship with Planned Parenthood.”

More than 20 Catholic dioceses, including all of those in Ohio and North Dakota, have spoken out against donating to Komen. Some have banned church and parish-school donations, and others, like St. Louis, simply say they neither support nor encourage participation in activities benefiting Komen.

Ruse said that kind of pressure from bishops was one of the reasons Komen approached him for help in pursuing what turned out to be an ill-fated attempt to cut funding to Planned Parenthood.

“The whole issue of Komen funding Planned Parenthood,” said American Life League’s Sedlak, “should serve as a warning to other groups: that they should never get involved in funding Planned Parenthood; because if they do, they’re not going to be able to extricate themselves from entanglement.”

Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.

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