The Lesson of the Komen/Planned Parenthood Brouhaha

Nothing entices the right — and the left — like a battle over a woman's body

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“Politics have no place in health care,” declared the mayor of New York City, inserting himself into a controversy over whether one private charity should sever its ties with another private charity.

“It would be tragic if any woman — let alone thousands of women — lost access to these potentially life-saving screenings because of a politically motivated attack,” read the letter from 26 U.S. Senators, all with subpoena power, to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation.

“This issue of political organizations who are trying to politicize women’s reproductive health,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, when the war of the ribbons had been won. “This kind of political bullying — I think folks are just saying, ‘Enough.’”

(The whole affair has “unfortunately been turned into something about politics,” wrote Komen’s political director Karen Handel this morning, resigning because she had done nothing wrong and everything right.)

(MORE: Komen Official Quits Over Funding Row)

My mind drifts back to the last time women’s reproductive health, specifically mammograms, were politicized by political bullies.

It was November 2009. We were in the full fury of the health care debate, with the right bewailing on about rationing and death panels and Obama stealing grandpa’s new kidneys. Liberal proponents of the bill countered that the standards of care provision was simply so we could determine what the best medicine was, based on an objective review of all the available science.

Then the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) released an unfortunately timed revision to its mammogram recommendations. Based on an objective review of all the available science, the task force determined that most women ages 40 to 49 did not need annual mammograms and that the screenings overall did more harm than good (a large number of false positives leading to unnecessary surgeries, etc.). The USPSTF suggested that women consult with their physicians and that those without risk factors should have mammograms every other year.

There was much bewailing on the left, and within two weeks the U.S. Senate had slapped the Women’s Health Amendment onto the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It said, in effect, standards of care would be based on an objective review of all the available science, except for mammograms.

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“We applaud Senator [Barbara] Mikulski and her colleagues,” Richards cheered on her bully, “for working to make sure that women are better off under health care reform.”

Since then, further research has backed up the task force’s findings, suggesting that perhaps women are worse off under health care reform. Also, and unsurprisingly, the USPSTF itself has become a political football, with all its reports now subject to a period of public review, during which any and all interested parties can weigh in. New recommendations have subsequently dropped in frequency and utility.

This doesn’t excuse what happened at the Komen foundation, of course; that was not only wrong but also exceptionally dumb. Righteousness doesn’t make you right, from either side.

I’d proclaim a pox on both their houses, only I fear any pox, released into the current political environment, would kill us all.

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