Protests force Komen retreat on Planned Parenthood

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

Petitions, protests and pledges forced the Susan G. Komen for the Cure to apologize and retreat on its controversial  decision to defund cancer prevention programs at Planned Parenthood clinics.

But a week after the furor reached its peak, doubts lingered as to whether the nation’s leading breast-cancer charity could fully recover from the fallout.

Debate over whether right-wing politics played a role in Komen’s initial decision continued, as did scrutiny of other Komen policies, such as its position on stem-cell research.  Attention focused on the political interest and associations of Komen leaders, including Karen Handel, who resigned as  VP of public policy on Feb. 7.

The Komen-Planned Parenthood partnership began in 2005, with Komen money paying for some breast exams and mammogram referrals for low-income women at Planned Parenthood.

On Jan. 31, Komen said it was eliminating grants for Planned Parenthood because of a policy adopted in late 2011 that prohibits Komen from funding groups under government investigation.

“We regret that these new policies have impacted some longstanding grantees, such as Planned Parenthood, but want to be absolutely clear that our grant-making decisions are not about politics,” the foundation stated.

But while at least three Komen grant recipients, including Penn State, are under investigation, only one Komen partner, Planned Parenthood, was cut. Last September, Planned Parenthood came under a congressional review by U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., an abortion-rights foe who was responding to the right-wing claim that the health service used federal funding to subsidize abortions, a charge the national office and its affiliates say is false.

Stephanie M. Wilson of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin dismissed the Stearns investigation as “politically motivated … the latest effort by some extreme Republican leaders to undermine Planned Parenthood and restrict women’s access to essential preventative health care, like cancer screenings and contraceptive services.”

Wilson said Planned Parenthood routinely works with government regulators and independent auditors to ensure compliance with all rules and regulations regarding funding.

The reaction

Within 24 hours of Komen’s defunding announcement, the organization’s Facebook page contained more than 10,000 comments, most of them from people denouncing Komen for putting politics over health care. 

“I’m seeing red, not pink these days. I’ve walked for the Cure for years, but the next cancer event I do will be the Relay for Life,” Pauline Herrick of Madison wrote, referring to the American Cancer Society’s signature event.

The fallout brought more than a torrent of angry words: Komen affiliates appealed to their headquarters to reverse the decision. A coalition of 26 U.S. Senators urged reconsideration. The American Association of University Women called off its Komen for the Cure race. Pro-Planned Parenthood demonstrators gathered near Komen headquarters in Dallas on Feb. 1 and Feb. 2, circulated online petitions and rallied across the country to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to help Planned Parenthood fill any funding gap. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered up to $250,000 in a matching-grant pledge.

Komen grants – nearly $700,000 in 2011 – paid for about 4.3 percent of the 4 million breast exams and 9 percent of the 70,000 mammogram referrals provided at Planned Parenthood clinics in the past five years.

“Women are deeply alarmed that the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation appears to have succumbed to political pressure from a vocal minority,” Tanya Atkinson, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, said the day after the announcement. “For years, opponents of women’s health have waged an aggressive pressure campaign aimed at the Susan G. Komen Foundation at the expense of women’s health and lives.”

PPAW, a health care provider to 67,250 women, is not a recent Komen grant partner, but it received funding in the past. However, the Wisconsin group has become a target of right-wing politicking. Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 eliminated funding for breast and cervical cancer screenings and birth control services at Planned Parenthood and terminated a contract with PPAW to coordinate cancer screenings and referrals in the Fox Valley earlier this year.

Atkinson said, “We will continue, despite these political attacks, to serve the women and families in Wisconsin who rely on Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin for access to quality affordable health care and accurate, non-judgmental information.”

Many critics of Komen focused last week on the role of anti-abortion advocate Handel, who went to work for the charity last April as senior vice president of public policy.

In an article on The Atlantic website, three unnamed sources alleged the Komen board deliberately created the new policy to provide an excuse to terminate the Planned Parenthood partnership.

Those sources also said the funding cut was driven by Handel, whose Twitter profile reads, “Lifelong Conservative Republican formerly Georgia’s first Republican Secretary of State.”

As a 2010 gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, she won the endorsement of former VP candidate Sarah Palin, presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. Handel was one of Palin’s “Mama Grizzly” candidates, but she lost her primary runoff with Nathan Deal, who went on to win the office.

Handel campaigned as an anti-abortion candidate, pledging in a Web post, “I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood. … In fact, state and federal law prohibits the use of taxpayer funds for abortions or abortion-related services, and I strongly support those laws. Since grants like these are from the state I’ll eliminate them as your next governor.”

Handel, last week, was not accessible to the press. But the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that a Tweet from her account said, “Just like a pro-abortion group to turn a cancer org’s decision into a political bomb to throw. Cry me a freaking river.”

Handel became an instant martyr on the religious right. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, a designated hate group,  hailed her as a hero for “standing in the gap” against “the enemy.”

Critics of Komen also focused on CEO and founder Nancy G. Brinker, an ambassador to Hungary and chief of protocol of the United States for George W. Bush.

Two years ago, Brinker received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Democrat Barack Obama, but her political ties are clearly to the GOP. Her federal political contributions include Rick Santorum, Bill Frist, John McCain, Mel Martinez, Arlen Specter, Clay Shaw, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Pete Sessions, the Republican National Committee, Republican Leadership Council and the presidential exploratory committee of Elizabeth Dole.

Damage control

Komen’s first effort at containing damages was a Web video featuring Brinker titled “Setting the Record Straight.”

Brinker said the new grant policy was mischaracterized and that Komen was seeking to streamline its grant program, seeking to directly fund centers that provide mammograms rather than referrals.

Komen would never bow to political pressure, Brinker vowed.

But Komen could not suppress the protests.

Pledges continued to Planned Parenthood – the organization raised a reported $3 million in three days last week. Activists were organizing demonstrations and the social media missiles continued.

Early Feb. 3, the Komen board issued a statement: “We want to apologize to the American public for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women’s lives. The events of this week have been deeply unsettling for our supporters, partners and friends, and all of us at Susan G. Komen.”

Komen clarified that grants can be withheld from organizations under investigation, but such investigations “must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political.”

Planned Parenthood and its supporters cheered the news.

Abortion foes said Komen caved. Evangelist Bill Keller warned of “the wrath and punishment of God unleashed on this wicked nation at any moment.”

And Handel resigned. She wrote to Brinker on Feb. 7, “I am deeply disappointed by the gross mischaracterizations of the strategy, its rationale, and my involvement in it. I openly acknowledge my role in the matter and continue to believe our decision was the best one for Komen’s future and the women we serve. However, the decision to update our granting model was made before I joined Komen, and the controversy related to Planned Parenthood has long been a concern to the organization. Neither the decision nor the changes themselves were based on anyone’s political beliefs or ideology.”

Future funding

Yet questions about Komen continue: How secure is Planned Parent-hood funding? And did Komen, despite denials, initially attempt to appease its anti-choice executive and the right?

Close readers of Komen’s Feb. 3 statement say the organization’s plan for Planned Parenthood is an open question.

And another Komen policy statement in line with anti-abortion organizations suggests a right tilt and politics trumping breast-cancer research.

In a decision last November that received far less attention, the organization issued a position on stem cell research: “Susan G. Komen for the Cure has never funded human embryonic stem cell research nor does Komen currently fund H-ESCR. Komen supports research on the isolation, derivation, production and testing of stem cells that are capable of producing all or almost all of the cell types of the developing body and may result in improved understanding of or treatments for breast cancer, but are derived without creating a human embryo or destroying a human embryo.”