Unlike the 26 U.S. Senators who are unethically abusing their positions by presuming to demand that an independent non profit organization expend its funds according to their interests, I am not going to tell the board of the Susan G. Komen Foundation how to pursue its mission…because as with the Senators, it is none of my business. Ethics is my business, and the full-blown ethics train wreck surrounding the Foundation’s decision to end its substantial financial support of Planned Parenthood has been created by dishonesty, misrepresentation and a lack of fairness from all directions.
Here are some unpopular ethics truths in this fiasco.
- The decision of the Komen Board to end its support of Planned Parenthood was in part based on political considerations, and there is nothing inappropriate or unethical about that. Deny it though they may, Planned Parenthood, because it is the largest provider of abortion services in the country, is correctly perceived as a political and ideological organization. That’s not wrong, and it’s not really avoidable, since abortion is still a (legitimately) controversial social and political issue. Support for Planned Parenthood will be perceived as support for abortion, and anyone who denies that is being willfully obtuse, or lying.
- This is proven by the furious reaction of people, pundits, politicians, activists and other groups to the Komen Foundation’s decision to end its relationship with Planned Parenthood. Are we really expected to believe that those attacking Komen, every single one of whom is pro-abortion, are doing so because of Planned Parenthood’s mammogram referral services or its breast cancer screenings? Tell me another. The anger comes because Komen’s decision is perceived as a retreat from support of abortion rights. You know it, I know it, Komen knows it, Planned Parenthood knows it, and the critics know it.
- If Komen’s financial support of Planned Parenthood was either intended to constitute support of abortion, or perceived that way, there is and was nothing wrong with that. But not financially supporting an organization that provides abortions is not the same as opposing abortion. I stopped supporting the ACLU financially because I didn’t care for their choice of cases, but I support their mission and the organization wholeheartedly. It is true that with politically-charged issues like abortion, zealots and activists like to box us all into “you are either with us or against us” traps. We still don’t have to accept it, and neither does Komen. The Foundation is officially and traditionally apolitical, as it should be, because the issue of preventing breast cancer should not be a topic of political debate. If the Foundation’s leadership decides that supporting the politically-controversial Planned Parenthood is, upon reflection, a breach of that tradition, it should be able to withdraw without being labelled an abortion foe. When it starts giving grants to anti-abortion organizations, then Komen can fairly be accused of taking the other side. It has a right to remains neutral, and as a non-profit with a mission unrelated to abortion, remaining neutral is probably the wiser course.
- Unfortunately, Komen managed to handle its withdrawal badly, and was dishonest in the process, which will always raise suspicion. First it said that the decision was made to comply with a new policy preventing the Foundation from giving grants to organizations under investigation. Since the Congressional investigation in question is a right-wing Republican attack on Planned Parenthood, this explanation made what was supposed to be an apolitical decision look politically motivated. This lazy “we had no choice!” explanation is a favorite dodge used of organizations when they decide to take action that they know will attract criticism. It is cowardly, dishonest, and a rejection of accountability. Komen had a choice: the “policy” sounds like it was conveniently crafted to provide an alibi for dropping Planned Parenthood. Now the Foundation says that it wants to re-direct support to groups that provide more direct breast heath services—that perform mammograms for low-income women, for example, rather than merely providing referrals, which is what Planned Parenthood does. That is an unassailable rationale, consistent with Komen’s mission. But what is the “real” reason for dropping Planned Parenthood? It is a mix, of course, like the reasoning behind most decisions. What matters is that the decision can be defended within the mission of the organization, and it can. The fact that various political and ideological factors may have been part of the mix is irrelevant.
The Foundation now has apologized for its weasel-words, and now says that it will not automatically exclude potential grantees based on investigations, unless they are related to criminal allegations. This is just PR repair work.
- Non profit organizations are ethically required to act in accordance with their mission statements, and the mission of the Susan G. Komen Foundation does not mention abortion and is not related to abortion. Therefore, while the mission certainly would not bar grants to an organization like Planned Parenthood, one that is widely identified with abortion services but that also provides services that advance Komen’s mission, it in no way obligates Komen to support such an organization, either.
- By what rule, right or principle do those not involved with the management of an operating foundation presume to tell that foundation’s leadership who and what it should support, and how it should pursue its mission? Since when does a grant-seeking organization demand that it be given money by a grant-maker? How dare anyone condemn a charitable organization for pursuing its mission as it sees fit and is statutorily authorized to do, as long as it is not abusing its charter? The attacks on Komen by Planned Parenthood allies are examples of bullying, and they approach being shakedowns. “Give hundreds of thousands to who WE think you should give to, or we’ll hurt you!” That’s not fair; it’s not just and it should be roundly condemned. The always juvenile, crude and over-the-top gang at Move-On. org, for example, are telling their followers to post a typically illiterate graphic on Facebook that states: “I stand with groups that don’t screw over Planned Parenthood and 1,000’s of women in the process. Sorry, Susan G. Komen, that means NOT you.” I have raised money for many non profits, and been disappointed by many rejections as well as grants that were eliminated after a year or ten. Never has it occurred to me to regard the choice of a foundation not to give my organization money as “screwing it.” An organization, whatever its merits, has no right to receive, or demand, a grant from anybody. Neither does Planned Parenthood. I have also been involved with grant-making organizations, and any past recipient that had the deluded sense of entitlement to attack us for not funding it in a given year would have a large “DON’T FUND EVER AGAIN!” note placed in its file.
- Finally, returning to the 26 Senators: I thought the 2005 Republican Congress’s efforts to attempts to pressure the husband of Terri Schiavo to keep her in a vegetative existence was the most despicable, arrogant and revolting abuse of legislative power I had ever seen, and I suppose it still is the champion. But for more than a fourth of the U.S. Senate to presume to tell a non profit organization how it should spend over a half-million dollars as it seeks to cure breast cancer, and to try to turn its constituents against a foundation that not only has an admirable mission but that also has pursued that mission admirably, is a close second. This is an outrageous abuse of power, and this time, it’s all Democrats (well, 25 Democrats and Bernie Sanders, a socialist), proving once again that when stupidity and bad ethics are involved, the only difference between Blue and Red elected officials is opportunity.
Let the Susan G. Komen Foundation spend its money to cure breast cancer its own way, and judge it by its success, not by which zealots it makes happy in the process.
Everyone involved has, to various degrees, behaved unethically.
And that, my friends, is what makes it an Ethics Train Wreck.