Friday, June 1, 2012

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

MV5BMTU4ODg1OTAwN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTE5Mjk0Ng@@._V1._SY317_CR2,0,214,317_The NY Times has a less than glowing movie review of Pink Ribbons, Inc., the new documentary based on the book of the same name that focuses on the close relationship between the breast cancer movement and corporate America.  Here is the synopsis of the film from the National Film Board of Canada:

Billions of dollars have been raised through the tireless efforts of women and men devoted to putting an end to breast cancer. Yet, breast cancer rates in North America have risen to 1 in 8. "What's going on?" asks Barbara Brenner in Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Additional Reviews: LA Times, NPR.


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I think this story really brings to light a much more fundamental question facing us: what is freedom, and what role do nonprofits and corporations have in shaping our sense of freedom?

The modern view of freedom - particular the modern view of sexual freedom - is no freedom at all: it makes us slaves to pharmaceutical companies, who control provide us with the artificial contraception we need to live our carefree sex lives. When our carefree sex lives lead us into trouble, we then get to turn to those same pharmaceutical companies for plan B abortion pills or chemical treatments for our sexually transmitted diseases. The pharmaceutical companies win on both ends: they sell us pills and devices that allow us to live irresponsibly, and then they sell solutions for the problems those pills and devices cause us. A more authentic view of freedom would require us to live well ordered, virtuous lives, in harmony with nature, treating our fertility as a gift to be used responsibly instead of a disease to be treated and (if possible) extinguished so that we can live as we wish.

Unfortunately, groups like Komen have supported this false view of freedom instead of standing up to it as a threat to women's health and public health. Standing up to such a false view of freedom would be political suicide for Komen, as it discovered when it stopped funding Planned Parenthood. Komen's decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood made a lot of sense from a medical perspective because Planned Parenthood's core business is the provision of abortion services and the distribution of oral contraception - both of which are linked to increased risk of breast cancer (see links below). This is one of the core problems with these philanthropic efforts: Komen makes lots of money touting medical solutions only, but loses money if it ever tries to address the problem of breast cancer in a comprehensive way (i.e. in a way that would ask people to change the way they live). By funding Planned Parenthood, Komen actually encourages people to engage in the very behaviors (abortion, oral contraception) that are linked to the disease Komen is trying to prevent (breast cancer). This is insane, but no one is willing to say so because it would buck conventional orthodoxy and stop the flow of government and private dollars to Komen.

The same problem exists for other nonprofits who are fighting against HIV/AIDS and sexually-transmitted diseases. HIV/AIDS is primarily a disease resulting from behavioral choices (just like other sexually-transmitted diseases), but instead of telling people to stop living dangerous lives we (at least implicitly) tell them to keep living dangerous lives but (i) use condoms, or (ii) get tested regularly. This is a reversal of what we told smokers. We told smokers to stop smoking and told them that smoking hurt them and others around them. We also sued companies that profited off smokers without really warning them of the risks. It worked: smoking rates dropped significantly over the past 30 years. The fight against breast cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV/AIDS rates have been much less successful (despite all the money being put into them) in large part because we keep selling people on a modern, distorted view of freedom that mocks virtue and self-restraint and praises self-indulgence and self-expression.

I think this issue of freedom raises a number of important issues for the nonprofit world. Here are some and I am sure there are more:

(1) Is the nonprofit sector losing its status as an "independent sector" as it becomes more closely tied to business and government (e.g. Komen being pressured by U.S. Senators and Planned Parenthood to reverse its decision even though it had both medical and practical reasons for it).

(2) Would the nonprofit sector be more "independent" if it had its own source of revenue, independent of government, business, and donors? Do hybrids present a way to help the independent sector become truly independent?

(3) Although private foundations are often used by the extremely wealthy for not-so-noble purposes, are private foundations especially important because they provide an opportunity for folks with unorthodox views to push unpopular agendas?

For those interested, here is a report from National Cancer Institute on the link between oral contraception and breast cancer:

Naturally occurring estrogen and progesterone have been found to influence the development and growth of some cancers. Because birth control pills contain female hormones, researchers have been interested in determining whether there is any link between these widely used contraceptives and cancer risk.

The results of population studies to examine associations between oral contraceptive use and cancer risk have not always been consistent. Overall, however, the risks of endometrial and ovarian cancer appear to be reduced with the use of oral contraceptives, whereas the risks of breast, cervical, and liver cancer appear to be increased (1). A summary of research results for each type of cancer is given below.

Here is a report on an article in the Lancet on the abortion/breast cancer link:

In 1986, government scientists wrote a letter to the British journal Lancet and acknowledged that abortion is a cause of breast cancer. They wrote, "Induced abortion before first term pregnancy increases the risk of breast cancer." (Lancet, 2/22/86, p. 436)

Posted by: Anne | Jun 6, 2012 8:22:25 AM

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