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Women's health not just about breasts

By Erika Christakis and Nicholas A. Christakis, Special to CNN
updated 6:06 PM EST, Fri February 3, 2012
Erika and Nicholas Christakis say there is more to women's health than just breasts.
Erika and Nicholas Christakis say there is more to women's health than just breasts.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: Komen foundation cut off, then restored funding to Planned Parenthood
  • They say move seemed to show view of women's care skewed towards breast health
  • They says breasts one part of women's lives; it's bound to complexities of sexual health
  • Writers: People who disagree on abortion can still agree on need for comprehensive health care

Editor's note: Erika Christakis is an educator and public health advocate. Nicholas A. Christakis, is a professor in the departments of Medicine, Sociology, and Health Care Policy at Harvard University. Together, they serve as Masters of one of Harvard's 12 residential undergraduate houses.

(CNN) -- If you travel to the island of Delos in Greece, you might be surprised to visit ruins dominated by statues of gigantic stone penises. Even in its ancient, mythological context, it's jarring to see such a disembodied representation of the human form. Women, of course, are perhaps a bit more accustomed than men to being reduced to a collection of body parts. Even so, it was startling to hear earlier this week that one of America's largest and wealthiest advocates of women's health appears to be fixated on breasts, rather than on the women to whom they are attached.

The Susan G. Komen foundation, a multi-billion dollar breast cancer charity, is in active PR overdrive at the moment, after defunding and then -- after a firestorm of objection -- apparently reinstating its support to Planned Parenthood, a major nonprofit provider of comprehensive health services to low-income women.

Erika and Nicholas Christakis
Erika and Nicholas Christakis

Many suspected that political motivation from the foundation's new, avowedly anti-abortion senior staff drove the decision to defund. And critics said that the new criteria Komen gave to explain the cutoff-- the barring of donations to any organization under a current federal investigation -- would have unfairly targeted Planned Parenthood, while ignoring other grantees in the same position. The Komen foundation denied this intention.

Even so, Americans tore into the move in the Twittersphere and on Facebook, and donations poured into Planned Parenthood affiliates this week (already making up for the money that the Komen Foundation had tried to withhold).

While it's a relief that the funding appears safe for now, the residual anger and frustration may take a long time to repair. What continues to appall is not just the threat of taking money away from a valued health care provider but the insulting view that women's breasts are somehow detached from the larger reality of their lives.

The women who go to Planned Parenthood for breast exams, birth control pills, mammography referrals, pap smears, and the like, probably don't view their potential (or actual) breast cancer as a separate matter.

Komen flips after angry backlash
Planned Parenthood thanks Komen group
Lautenberg: Komen did the right thing
Pelosi: Komen decision a 'good outcome'

It's certainly progress that we can say the words "breast cancer" without shame or embarrassment. The mainstreaming of breast cancer in the public consciousness -- the pink ribbons and the cozy ads showing loving husbands and brothers -- is incredibly heartening. It's been a game-changer with respect to the research that has improved diagnosis and treatment over the last two decades.

Breast cancer is literally a household phrase now. But in making those two words such a universal focus, we may have forgotten that the vast majority of people with breast cancer are women who are, or have been, sexually active. The ubiquitous pink gear has become a powerful symbol of how to improve women's lives, yet a strangely neutered one. The "pinkness" of those ribbons and wristbands -- representing the underlying fact of women's sexual and reproductive lives -- has somehow been obscured: Breasts can not only nurture babies, but also attract men with whom to make them.

Women's breasts are just one part of the female experience. The problem with the Komen Foundation's thinking appears to be that it treats the breast as if it were the whole experience, the whole story. It's like resolving to give people free dental care in order to improve happiness, because we'd all have nicer smiles.

Breasts aren't disconnected, like the ancient stone penises, from the lived world. Women are grown-ups. They make love. They try and fail to get pregnant. They lose and terminate pregnancies. They have children. They make poor choices. They have poor choices made for them. They find lumps in their breasts which turn out to be nothing, or something.

People with a range of attitudes about abortion can still agree on the need for comprehensive health care. Contrary to hysterical political rhetoric, 97% of Planned Parenthood's services have nothing to do with abortion. And the wholeness of women's lives is exactly why Planned Parenthood provides such an extraordinary service to women in a country where health care is still a privilege, not a right. Planned Parenthood recognizes that women are not a collection of body parts, but human beings with connected and complex lives.

Not just breasts.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Erika Christakis and Nicholas A. Christakis.

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