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    Abortion politics and breast cancer: Local Komen group will need heroic effort to recover

    By Susan Nielsen, The Oregonian The Oregonian- Sunday 2/5/12


    The local affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure may not recover from last week’s political firestorm over Planned Parenthood, not without months of crisis control and outreach.

    But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Sharon Hunt of McMinnville, Jennifer Williamson of Portland — and Jennifer’s mom, a retired oncology nurse from Beaverton who fervently opposes abortion yet supports Planned Parenthood for its commitment to women in need.

    “It’s very upsetting,” said Margaret Williamson, 65. “The early detection of cancer is so important. … This whole thing is totally unfair, especially to low-income women.”

    Last week, the nation’s leading breast-cancer charity said it decided to reject Planned Parenthood as a grant recipient for breast cancer screening. Komen pinned the change to a newly adopted board policy forbidding grants to organizations under investigation. Komen leaders insisted, unpersuasively, that this had nothing to do with Planned Parenthood’s role as an abortion provider or with the ongoing campaign by abortion opponents to starve the family-planning organization of public and private money.

    The backlash was immediate and stunning. By Friday, Komen was compelled to apologize and reverse course. Unfortunately, it’s hard to measure the extent of the reversal: Planned Parenthood is technically eligible for Komen grants again, but it may not win any.

    It’s also hard for breast-health advocates in Oregon to know how to respond. The local Komen affiliate serves Oregon and southwest Washington (and the local leaders opposed the move to defund Planned Parenthood), but the chapter does send a good portion of its locally raised money to national headquarters for research and advocacy.

    That doesn’t sit well with Hunt, 67.

    “I think (the national leaders) are so involved with continuing the institution of Komen,” Hunt said, “that they didn’t think about the woman who doesn’t have health insurance.”

    About five years ago, Hunt needed a mammogram but couldn’t afford one. She had recently lost her job as a receptionist and didn’t yet qualify for Medicare. She called the Komen foundation, the nearby Planned Parenthood clinic and another clinic. No one could help her. As she describes it, the two clinics were out of mammogram vouchers and the Komen folks said they hadn’t gotten their locally raised money back from headquarters yet.

    She finally got a mammogram once she qualified for Medicare. She’s fine, but she hates the scarcity of affordable cancer screening and she feels awful for the women whose early-stage cancers go undetected.

    “No one,” she said, “deserves to be snubbed.”

    I do think the local Komen chapter, which declined to comment Friday, can recover from this political crisis. However, it will take months of hard work to restore public confidence. If Komen can show exactly where the local donations go, and if it can be unusually specific about every Komen-supported breast-health service in every corner of Oregon, it may win back the local supporters who want to fight breast cancer without also fighting the culture wars.

    If the local chapter can’t rise to the occasion, another breast-cancer charity will grow to meet the demand.

    Until last week, Jennifer Williamson, 38, a Democratic state House candidate, served on local boards for both Planned Parenthood and the Komen charity. She resigned from the Komen board on Thursday, frustrated by the local affiliate’s initially timid response to the national move. She’s glad to see Komen backtrack, but she remains wary of the national agenda and reluctant to rejoin. She uses the word “trust” a lot.

    So does her mom, the former oncology nurse — a Catholic who calls herself “very anti-abortion.” The elder Williamson described Planned Parenthood as a first stop for lower-income women needing health care, and an ideal partner for Komen’s breast-health screening and mammogram referrals.

    She sees the politics as a terrible distraction.

    She has watched too many women die to feel otherwise.

    –Associate editor Susan Nielsen, The Oregonian

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