Blindfolded By A Pink Ribbon? Barbara Ehrenreich On Mammograms, Breast Cancer

Barbara Ehrenreich asks, "has feminism been replaced by the pink-ribbon breast cancer cult?" In other words, are women so concerned with access to mammograms that they're ignoring science and even their own rights?

In an op-ed in Salon (which appears in slightly abbreviated form in the LA Times, Ehrenreich writes that women's response to the Stupak Amendment, which "will snatch away all but the wealthiest women's right to choose," has been "muted" compared with the outcry against the new mammography guidelines. This is despite the fact that mammograms for women under 50 haven't been shown to decrease breast cancer mortality, and some evidence suggests they may even increase cancer risk. Ehrenreich writes,

It's not just that abortion is deemed a morally trickier issue than mammography. To some extent, pink-ribbon culture has replaced feminism as a focus of female identity and solidarity. When a corporation wants to signal that it's "woman friendly," what does it do? It stamps a pink ribbon on its widget and proclaims that some miniscule portion of the profits will go to breast cancer research. I've even seen a bottle of Shiraz called "Hope" with a pink ribbon on its label, but no information, alas, on how much you have to drink to achieve the promised effect. When Laura Bush traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2007, what grave issue did she take up with the locals? Not women's rights (to drive, to go outside without a man, etc.), but "breast cancer awareness." In the post-feminist United States, issues like rape, domestic violence, and unwanted pregnancy seem to be too edgy for much public discussion, but breast cancer is all apple pie.

On the one hand, Ehrenreich's comments seem like a somewhat heavy-handed indictment of modern feminism. She says, "Once upon a time, grassroots women challenged the establishment by figuratively burning their bras. Now, in some masochistic perversion of feminism, they are raising their voices to yell, 'Squeeze our tits!'" But just as not everything a woman does is empowering, not every extra-scientific position a group of women takes is a blow to feminism. Also, plenty of us have been far from muted on Stupak.

That said, however, there's good evidence that the breast cancer awareness movement as it currently exists isn't necessarily good for women. Though many fear that the new guidelines are simply an attempt by insurance companies to save money, Ehrenreich argues that the old guidelines actually pumped money into the pockets of oncologists, who offered chemotherapy for mammogram-detected cancers that might never have needed treating. Unfortunately, we don't yet know how to distinguish these cancers from those that do merit aggressive treatment — and the treatments we do have could be a lot better. Ehrenreich says,

What we really need is a new women's health movement, one that's sharp and skeptical enough to ask all the hard questions: What are the environmental (or possibly life-style) causes of the breast cancer epidemic? Why are existing treatments like chemotherapy so toxic and heavy-handed? And, if the old narrative of cancer's progression from "early" to "late" stages no longer holds, what is the course of this disease (or diseases)? What we don't need, no matter how pretty and pink, is a ladies' auxiliary to the cancer-industrial complex.

Ehrenreich's language is harsh, but as someone who suffered breast cancer herself, she knows whereof she speaks. And while research into cancer treatment is ongoing, the focus of breast cancer awareness could use a shift. Much of the focus is on women themselves — their responsibility to schedule regular mammograms, to lead a healthy lifestyle, and to perform self-exams (a practice also jettisoned under the new guidelines). It makes a certain amount of sense — individual women want to feel that they can have an effect on their health. But there may be systemic factors, like additives and pollutants, that contribute to breast cancer, and the pink-ribbon movement might do well to advocate for more research into those. And although mammograms can save lives, new screening options might be even better — cutting-edge research deserves just as much support as awareness and prevention currently get.

The "pink-ribbon breast cancer cult," as Ehrenreich calls it, may not be the sign of a large-scale failure of feminism. But women are being asked to accept a lot of symbolic gestures — like Sen. Dick Vitter's superfluous mammogram-access amendment — instead of the reproductive rights and truly life-saving treatments they actually need. Ehrenreich argues persuasively that rather than getting angry about new guidelines for a useful but flawed procedure, women should save their anger for what really matters — that we still don't know how to heal our breasts, and that the government is trying to control our wombs.

Slap On A Pink Ribbon, Call It A Day [Salon]
Can Mammograms Increase Cancer Risk For Some Women? [Time: Wellness Blog]
Annual Screening With Breast Ultrasound Or MRI Could Benefit Some Women [EurekAlert]
Targeted Breast Ultrasound Can Reduce Biopsies For Women Under 40 [EurekAlert]
David Vitter Will Protect Ladies From Medical Recommendations [Wonkette]