Is there a real danger to the creep of utilitarianism in humanitarian thinking? Has the modern humanitarian world been reduced to little more than a competitive arena for non-profit interests? Last year, the Susan G. Komen Foundation imploded over scandals and bitter dissension over funding disputes with Planned Parenthood. The split took place on a number of levels – financial, ideological, and political – and took place between two technically secular organizations, but it was also complicated (and perhaps even initiated) by conservative Christian concerns over abortion funding and ethics. Several days ago, Austin Ruse, president of C-FAM (Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute) and self-described intermediary in the dispute, released an “insider’s story” of the shocking and tabloid-worthy collapse. It’s a horrifying account (assuming that it is true) primarily because of the vicious back-biting and politicking around the seemingly neutral and relatively uncontroversial cause of breast cancer screening:
For years pro-lifers pounded Komen for its support of Planned Parenthood. It made no sense to pro-lifers that Komen, a breast cancer charity, would fund an organization whose essential work in performing abortions that can increase the risk of this deadly disease. And it was an increasing frustration for the millions of pro-life Americans who “raced for the cure” but could not in good conscience continue. Campaigns against Komen by pro-lifers were running all over the country. When Komen President Liz Thompson first came to my office she said, “fully 50% of my time is spent in dealing with” pro-life boycotts of Komen fundraising…
Handel and Thompson said repeatedly to me that they wanted out of the culture wars. They said they did not want to enter into the pro-life side but they wanted to become neutral and focus their time on saving women’s lives. I told them the pro-life world would not need Komen to join the pro-life ranks but that becoming neutral would be welcome and that the boycotts would almost certainly end.
At the time, Komen provided 19 grants to various Planned Parenthood branches, which over the years totaled into the millions of dollars. They believed their donations went to cancer screenings. Little did they know that Planned Parenthood had been lying to them and was only doing referrals since they did not do mammograms…
Nancy Brinker’s hubris got the better of her. She had been thought for so long to be a secular saint, even and especially among the feminist crowd, that she could schmooze her way through any crisis. She spoke to the head of Planned Parenthood and said they had a “gentle-ladies” agreement not to go after each other; the two groups would simply part as friends…
What we did not know at the time was that Planned Parenthood at that moment was planning a massive attack against their long-time friends at Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The board meeting and private announcement to Planned Parenthood came in December and all was quiet, or so we thought, for many weeks.
On January 31, 2012, Handel and I were meeting with the Pro-Life Secretariat of the USCCB to map out ideas on how to tell the rest of the pro-life world that funding had been pulled. Deirdre McQuaid, head of communications for the Secretariat, said she had fielded a phone call from an Associated Press reporter about Komen withdrawing Planned Parenthood funding. Handel said she had, too. An immediate pall settled over the meeting. This could mean only one thing; Planned Parenthood had leaked the story and something was about to happen.
What happened over the next 72 hours is well known. The AP story could not have been worse for Komen. The Komen spokesman had been directed to talk specifically and only about “pass through grants.” Instead she talked about the investigations against Planned Parenthood. This placed the issue directly into the camp of House Republicans. Even though many investigations were going on, including for criminal wrongdoing at the local and state level, the spokesman made it about nasty “anti-choice” Republicans going after women’s health in the House of Representatives. This became the opening salvo in the “war against women” narrative. So egregious was this mistake by Komen spokesman Leslie Aun that in her book Handel suggests Aun may have been working for Planned Parenthood all along…
Over those few days the handful of Komen insiders were hunkered down in a glass-walled room at Komen’s DC headquarters. Someone present in the glass room told me he had many times participated in real national security crises in the White House, but that he had never experienced anything like the unrelenting attack on the people in that little room over those few days. Each minute brought new aspects to the crisis, new attacks. It was simply nonstop.
To be clear, I have no idea how true any of these accusations are. But the illustrative point stands in sobering clarity: the monetization of charity and the outsourcing of humanitarian will does not and cannot exist in a moral, apolitical, non-competitive vacuum. Even completely secular organizations, even those held in high regard by the lay public, are vulnerable to partisanship, power struggles, abuses, and corruption. Every organization operates under the guidance of an ideology, and areligious advocates that function under such principles are no less susceptible to vices and foibles than Christian ones.
On every level of aid, assumptions are made about what constitutes the beneficiaries’ best interest, whether it happens to be malaria nets or clean drinking water or spiritual enlightenment or wheelchairs for the handicapped. To discredit the contribution and authority of religion is to necessarily declare that such assumptions must demonstrate their superiority in economic, Darwinian fashion: survival of the fittest among a donor and recipient base that often doesn’t agree within itself as to what it believes or desires. There is an inherent, qualitative difference between them and the Christian community that (ought to) distinguish it from this scrabbling on the sole basis of a belief in a sovereign, good, and gracious God. In the seasoned and surprising words of Henri Nouwen, the sovereignty of God is the mechanism that releases us from anxious, self-centered bickering or from utilitarian partisanship & disenfranchisement and into a truer, comprehensive, and ultimately satisfying sense of vocation and calling:
There are many common-interest groups, and most of them seem to exist in order to defend or protect something. Although these groups often fulfill important tasks in our society, the Christian community is of a different nature. When we form a Christian community, we come together not because of similar experiences, knowledge, problems, color, or sex, but because we have been called together by the same God. Only God enables us to cross the many bridges that separate us; only the Lord allows us to recognize each other as members of the same human family, and frees us to pay careful attention to each other. This is why those who are gathered together in community are witnesses to the compassionate God. By the way they are able to carry each other’s burdens and share each other’s joys, they testify to God’s presence in our world.
Life in community is a response to a vocation. The word vocation comes from the Latin vocare, which means “to call.” God calls us together into one people fashioned in the image of Christ. It is by Christ’s vocation that we are gathered. Here we need to distinguish carefully between vocation and career. In a world that puts such emphasis on success, our concern for a career constantly tends to make us deaf to our vocation. When we are seduced into believing that our career is what counts, we can no longer hear the voice that calls us together; we become so preoccupied with our own plans, projects, or promotions that we push everyone away who prevents us from achieving our goals. Career and vocation are not mutually exclusive. Many people have become excellent doctors, lawyers, technicians, and scientists in response to God’s call heard in the community. Quite often, our vocation becomes visible in a specific job, task, or endeavor. But our vocation can never be reduced to these activities. As soon as we think that our careers are our vocation, we are in danger of returning to the ordinary and proper places governed by human competition and of using our talents more to separate ourselves from others than to unite ourselves with them in a common life. A career disconnected from a vocation divides; a career that expresses obedience to our vocation is the concrete way of making our unique talents available to the community. Therefore, it is not our careers, but our vocation, that should guide our lives. – Compassion by Henri Nouwen
About the author:
David graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and received his medical degree from Rutgers - Robert Wood Johnson Medical School with a Masters in Public Health concentrated in health systems and policy. He completed a dual residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware. He continues to work in Delaware as a dual Med-Peds hospitalist. Faith-wise, he is decidedly Christian, and regarding everything else he will gladly talk your ear off about health policy, the inner city, gadgets, and why Disney’s Frozen is actually a terrible movie.