Total eclipse of the breast

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Climbing Mt Shasta to raise money for the Breast Cancer Fund
By Lisa Russ

The Komen/Planned Parenthood storm last week was a fascinating real-time window into how tens of thousands of women think and feel about the politics of breast cancer and reproductive health care. The storm both changed the environment and is the environment.  Here are two thoughts I am mulling over as we begin to translate the events of last week into learnings for our work.

First, breast cancer has eclipsed abortion.

For many women, breast cancer has become their pivotal “personal is political” experience. As women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have become more visible, and organizations supporting them have shaped themselves into vibrant, supportive hubs, breast cancer has replaced abortion as the primary place where women are challenged to understand their bodies, to see their health in a political context, and are moved to take action.

Because of real wins over many decades, for most women in the US, contraception is out of the closet, and abortions are no longer life threatening.  However, those opposed to choice have succeeded in generating shame and stigma around abortion, and so it has remained a hushed topic.  Women are largely silent about their own experiences...merely telling abortion stories is still a notable, political act.  So actually getting an abortion has moved from the realm of the political to the highly personal and for many, extremely private.

Defending the right  for women to access safe and legal abortions has demanded incredible time and talent over the last four decades.  Last year, there was a record number of bills at the state level that sought to limit abortion access for women, and many organizations and individuals fought hard to sustain current levels of access and funding.

During this time, breast cancer has moved to the center of American life. Across race, age, political party and geographies, women are raising money, speaking out, forming their identities and literally climbing mountains on this new frontier, promoting prevention, research, treatment and support for the growing number of women diagnosed with breast cancer.

The Komen storm showed us that we need each other.  Reproductive health advocates alone had not been able to generate that kind of action around the repeated attacks on Planned Parenthood. Breast cancer advocates alone cannot stem the tide of attacks on reproductive health, and in many ways the personal/political connection that breast cancer activism is built upon grew out of earlier work on women's health. In the remarkable events of last week, it took connecting the dots across organizations and issues to generate the momentum that couldn't be stopped.

Now what?
  • Reconnect the body: Why is one set of organizations looking out for our breasts, and another our uterus? The system of organizations dedicated to a segment of women’s health is in place, but we can support all kinds of cross-fertilization across the great divide.  We can work to see and understand that the body is whole, and support women's health across our varied parts.
  • Use stories: The Planned Parenthood Saved Me tumblr was a great example of making clear the critical, life-saving nature of reproductive health services. We will continue to create places where women can share their own experiences.
Second, name race early and often:

When a discussion begins in a “race-blind” frame, it is almost impossible to bring in a racial justice frame later. This is the premise of the Fair Game report by the Praxis Project, which uses the Obama campaign as the example of a “race-blind” frame that later made it impossible for Obama to take a strong stand for racial equity.  The outrage over Komen removing funding from Planned Parenthood rarely mentioned that this was first and foremost an attack on Planned Parenthood’s primary clients, who are low-income women and women of color. The outrage was “post-racial” which is a way of saying it didn’t name race, which is a way of saying it ignored race, which then neutralizes race in the conversation, which makes it very hard to bring up race in the end.

Over the last twelve months, attacks on Planned Parenthood have taken many forms--including the sting operation last summer, the billboard campaigns by Radiance Foundation and others, and a congressional investigation. The pressure on Komen to defund Planned Parenthood is linked to the ongoing attack on Planned Parenthood's credibility.  Those of us following the fight have seen how central race has been in the attacks—seen most vividly in the racist billboard campaigns that have attempted to equate abortion and genocide in the Black community.

We “won” because Planned Parenthood won...but we lost an opportunity to advance a racial justice frame—one that explains why these services are integral to women and communities of color, and why it is essential that we all work together to defend them. By not inserting race into the conversation early, we failed to secure a win for the reproductive rights of women of color.

Now what?
  • Support the voices of women of color and impacted communities to populate the meme, early and often.
  • Prioritize thought leadership and opinion pieces from leaders who speak from and about the experiences of women of color. 
  • Strongly encourage white writers and leaders to talk about race. Find the racial justice lens, and name it. Avoid getting carried by the exciting momentum into a post-racial moment. 
Will those of us who work for reproductive health, rights and justice be able to move the folks who were just moved by the Komen moment? How can we keep them engaged when the attacks are more directly on the reproductive rights (not breast health) of women of color (not “everybody”)?

Last week's storm gave us mounds of information and unleashed huge momentum. It's up to us to use it.


  1. Stumbled across your page by luck and I need to say that I highly enjoyed reading it. Keep up the quality work!