Bioethics Forum Essay

Pink Ribbons, Wire Hangers, and the Politics of Women’s Health

“Pink is the new wire hanger.”  In the flurry of tweets that followed in the wake of the debacle between Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Planned Parenthood, this one was my favorite. It combined two powerful symbols in women’s health–the pink ribbon of the breast cancer movement and the wire hangers used by women to perform their own dangerous and illegal abortions–to deliver a scathing critique of what mainstream women’s health advocacy has become. The combination of these two symbols underscored the diverging narratives we use to understand women’s health.

By now, thes aga is old news: Komen, the most prominent organization in breast cancer advocacy, decided to defund Planned Parenthood’s breast screening program because the organization also uses some of its funds to provide abortion services. Komen never said outright that this was the reasoning behind the decision, but scores of commentators on social media outlets erupted in outrage, and eventually, Komen recanted its decision.

The most prominent criticism of Komen was that it let politics get in the way of women’s health. New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote, “This week we had a huge political fight about breast cancer. Clearly, we have now hit the point where there’s nothing that can’t be divided into red-state-blue-state.” It seems to me that Collins genuinely wishes that there were a politically safe topic, something that everyone could agree is out of the realm of politics.  “Everybody hates cancer and everybody likes breasts–infants, adults, women, men,” she continues. “Really, it’s America’s most popular body part.”

I understand the thrust of this criticism: partisan politics got in the way of comprehensive women’s health; politics corrupted the nicest cause in America. It seems, though, that Collins and others are upset that politics in any form got involved with breast cancer advocacy, as if it were some idealized form of advocacy that could be free of politics. While I don’t agree with the particular politics that influenced Komen’s decision, I’m even more concerned with the idea that there’s a way of truly advancing women’s health while avoiding politics all together.

My sense of how integral political contestation is to women’s health comes largely from my experiences studying and engaging in AIDS advocacy. Unlike with women’s health, where there’s a nice story we can tell about women as mothers and caretakers, there’s really no pretty version of AIDS. To understand and respond to AIDS, we have no choice but to face up to realities like sex, drug use, and poverty, which in turn involves reckoning with the ways in which sex, drug use, and poverty are politically contested. What so many leaders in AIDS advocacy point out, and I fully agree with, is that AIDS is not a primarily biomedical phenomenon with social and political overlays. Rather, the social, political and biomedical dimensions are deeply intertwined and they are all central to understanding and responding to the epidemic.

Women’s health is the same. It’s notjustabout health in the biomedical sense. It’s also about the power dynamics between women and men, between women and the state. It’s about how bodies are regulated and how individual bodies relate to the body politic. And it’s about how those intricacies play out in everyday life, at the doctor’s office, at the pharmacist’s, in the bedroom.

Komen’s advocacy efforts have shaped breast cancer, a disease once heavily stigmatized, into a safe and appealing cause. Its efforts have constructed a particular narrative of the fight against breast cancer as wholesome struggle to protect mothers, daughters and wives from a disease that can not only take their lives, but take their breasts as well.

While the efforts to destigmatize the disease and fund research are laudable, the particular narrative Komen has told, especially through the use of the pink ribbon, often unfortunately reinforces stereotypes of women has helpless, frivolous and dependent. While Komen’s pink ribbons and broader mission have been questioned by many in recent years, including by me in a previous post, its decision to defund Planned Parenthood exposed its suspect values for all to see. Komen seemed to think women’s health could be divided into the wholesome, socially acceptable kind and the sexualized, politically fraught kind and that it could focus on the former without throwing women under the bus. It tried so hard to depoliticize women’s health that it eventually went so far as to cave to conservative politics.

While it’s distressing that Komen made such a decision for political gain, to me it’s as troublesome that Komen thought it could advance women’s health without confronting the political nature of women’s health.  Just as so many AIDS activists recognize that any response to AIDS must reckon with the politics of the epidemic, many women’s health advocates have advanced women’s health by engaging directly with its political dimensions. For example, the women’s health movement of the 1970s was arguably more about challenging power dynamics and advancing women’s equality than it was about healthper se. But though there is a strong legacy of recognizing the ways in which health and politics are intimately intertwined, the recent Komen fiasco demonstrated that some women’s health advocates want to proceed as though there’s a way to advance women’s health without dealing with politics. There’s not.

A seemingly apolitical effort to advance women’s health can be very alluring. However, efforts to completely shut out the fraught politics that are part and parcel of advancing comprehensive women’s health can come with its own dangers, as the recent Komen mess demonstrated. Comprehensive women’s health can’t be fully achieved through fairy tale narratives and pink ribbons. The gritty politics of sex, oppression, and wire hangers are part of the story too.

Colleen Farrell is a research assistant at The Hastings Center. She will start medical school later this year.

Posted by Susan Gilbert at 03/01/2012 02:35:06 PM |

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