Susan G. Komen and the Continuing Attack on Women’s Rights

In the last couple of weeks, between the Super Bowl and the latest Republican primaries, a shocking news story broke. The Susan G. Komen Foundation, a breast cancer research organization, was planning to stop providing funding to Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood, the national family planning and reproductive health organization, has been under attack relentlessly for providing abortions—an attack that’s escalated since Republicans took the House in 2010—though no federal funds cover abortion procedures. The organization also offers contraception, breast cancer screenings, STD screenings and other reproductive health services to women from all walks of life. Low-income women of color especially benefit from some of Planned Parenthood’s low-cost services.

The foundation’s refusal to fund Planned Parenthood was publicly read as an attack on Planned Parenthood specifically and an attack on low-income women of color. A public relations firestorm erupted, with thousands of women mobilizing both online and off to tell the Susan G. Komen Foundation that they disagreed with the foundation’s decision and that they supported Planned Parenthood’s reproductive health mission. After a mere three days the foundation reinstated the funding and Karen Handel, the vice president responsible for the decision, resigned.

These events come not even a month after the 39th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal in America, though lawmakers have significantly curbed this right since that landmark case. After the winning of the vote and Roe v. Wade it appeared that the public conversation around women in America shifted to questions about the right to access abortion. But in a talk held at Pomona College to celebrate the anniversary, Professor Reva Siegel of Yale Law School argued otherwise. She contextualized the Supreme Court’s decision within the framework of the “woman question.” The “woman question” initially designated debates of whether women deserved the right to vote and what their proper role in society outside of the male-dominated family should be. Siegel argued that the abortion debate reiterates the “woman question” today and that the same questions of a woman’s “proper role” in society are still being hotly debated under the guise of reproductive health debates.

What does access to reproductive health have to do with women’s political role in society? The answer is quite a substantial one. Women who have reliable access to affordable reproductive health services can make decisions like when to have a family, how to use contraceptives effectively, how to protect their health and other vital choices. A woman who does not have control over her body and health is at a significant disadvantage when it comes to participating in society. Without knowledge about or access to reproductive health services, she cannot decide when and how to work, to volunteer or organize, to run for an election or even to write and distribute her opinions. This is not to say that many women with family or health commitments cannot do these things—many do so courageously—but that women themselves are saying, and have been saying for years, that they want to make these decisions about their own lives. The government, political parties, corporations or non-profit organizations like the Susan G. Komen Foundation are not in charge of women’s health—choice about their own bodies reside with women themselves. Unfortunately, even if certain rights appear in the law books, many women in America—low-income women, women of color, undocumented women, lesbians and trans women—are denied this choice by the structures of government and civil society. For many, the struggle to empower a woman with the decision to make choices about her health continues.

The actions of the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the resulting backlash prove that the “woman question” is still alive and well, and that women are not waiting on the sidelines for an answer. Explicitly feminist-identified women formed much of this response, though an equally loud outcry has come from the women who rely on Planned Parenthood for their health and understand that an attack on Planned Parenthood is by proxy an attack on them. Many women never have stopped fighting since Roe v. Wade for control over their bodies, and women’s activism, whether feminist-labelled or not, has always been going on and experienced a kind of renaissance with the birth of the Internet and social media. Yet it has been a while since so many different women, from so many different places, have come together to make one claim with a single voice. Many commentators have been both taken aback and overjoyed at the united front women—who are often split by issues of race, class, sexuality, nationality and other identities—have shown in responding to the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s attack on widespread access to reproductive healthcare. Thirty-nine years after Roe v. Wade, the “woman question” has not gone away, we are not living in a post-feminist age of gender equality for all and women and their allies won’t stop fighting until all women have the ability to make decisions about their lives.


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