We may have spoken a bit too soon. “Whatever about Komen’s turbulent past,” we wrote earlier this month. “What matters for medical researchers is that it remains the largest nonprofit funder of breast cancer research.”
Turbulent past, we said, with no idea that a veritable tsunami of controversy was about to come crashing down in the wake of news of Komen’s acceptance of a $100,000 donation from a fracking company, which will, in turn, manufacture and distribute 1,000 pink fracking drill bits to its operations around the world.
Is that nuts or what? I have to confess, when the story popped up in my Facebook feed, I didn’t even click on it, assuming it was a hoax. Or from The Onion. And then I realized: Oh, my God, that’s for real.
For some folks, the hypocrisy of this move is almost too much to take. Fracking is the process of injecting pressurized water and chemicals deep into the earth in order to extract natural gas. Some of the chemicals (solvents, mostly) are left behind in the process, leaving open the possibility that the chemicals will get into the groundwater. Some aquifers have allegedly already been contaminated by fracking operations. And the chemicals, well, they’re carcinogenic.
To a lot of folks, this move by Komen, the last organization that needs controversy right now, is akin to an anti-war organization painting up fighter jets with messages of peace. And it raises bigger questions about the operation.
A few days ago, Karuna Jaggar blasted Komen in the Washington Post, noting that its ties with products containing carcinogenics goes well beyond this episode. Jagar's group, Breast Cancer Action, coined the term "pinkwashing" to describe how companies used health philanthropy to burnish their image. Jaggar wrote:
Pinkwashing has become a central component of the breast cancer industry: a web of relationships and financial arrangements between corporations that cause cancer, companies making billions off diagnosis and treatment, nonprofits seeking to support patients or even to cure cancer, and public relations agencies that divert attention from the root causes of disease ... All too often, Komen is receiving pinkwashed donations and providing cover to companies that are helping to fuel an epidemic.
You really have to wonder what Komen is thinking. Regardless of the merits of the case, there's the matter of optics and politics. It’s no secret that the world of women's health philanthropy is, by and large, left-leaning, and if you’re a big pass-through organization like Komen, you would think you’d want to be mindful of keeping your base happy. You'd think you would have learned hard lessons when the breast cancer universe flipped out after Komen pulled funding from Planned Parenthood last year, and Komen’s coffers shrank substantially (from $159.7 million in 2012 to $118.6 million in 2013) as a result.
You would think that if Komen were planning on continuing its grassroots-funded advocacy work, it would not be making moves like these. One blunder we could forgive—maybe it just had no idea that pulling away from Planned Parenthood would ruffle so many feathers? But this latest move just seems weird. Is Komen ready to risk what’s left of its (already tarnished) rep in exchange for $100,000?