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Komen vs. Planned Parenthood—What’s Going On?

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Immediate outrage in the social media greeted the Komen foundation after it defunded breast cancer screening by Planned Parenthood. Ellen Sweet explores what’s behind its puzzling turn-about.

Why would an organization that has invested $1.9 billion over the past 30 years to save women’s lives, whose founder and first director was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010, and whose pink ribbon promotions have penetrated almost every American household need to defund another iconic organization that shares a common goal? That’s the nagging question behind the uproar over the news that the Associated Press broke this week about Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation’s defunding of Planned Parenthood to do breast cancer education and screening. Could the answer be as simple as abortion politics? Sadly, it seems so.

Komen has acknowledged that it needs to serve low-income women, and its own fact sheets lay out the disproportionate number of women of color who die from breast cancer. To that end, it has been funding Planned Parenthood’s work for several years. As recently as last year, according to RH Reality Check, Komen issued a statement of support: “While Komen Affiliates provide funds to pay for screening, education and treatment programs in dozens of communities, in some areas, the only place that poor, uninsured or under-insured women can receive these services are through programs run by Planned Parenthood.”

So why the about-face now? Fingers have been pointed at internal staff leadership and specifically at Senior Vice President of Public Policy Karen Handel, an outspokenly anti-Planned Parenthood former Republican candidate for governor of Georgia. How does an organization that purports to be non-partisan put someone with her profile in a key position of steering, or at least implementing, its public policy agenda? During her tenure, Komen recently adopted a policy barring it from funding any entity that is “currently under a local, state or federal formal investigation for financial or administrative impropriety or fraud.” Conveniently and, it seems, intentionally, Komen formulated this policy shortly after Representative Cliff Stearns (R-FL) initiated an ongoing House committee investigation of Planned Parenthood. According to a former staffer at Komen who spoke to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, the investigation gave Komen leadership, including its board, the perfect cover for extricating themselves from the relationship with Planned Parenthood (though it led to the resignation of another high-level officer).

Response from Komen itself was slow in coming. Only after its Facebook page was deluged by comments did it post a perfunctory statement explaining its action. Its affiliates, some of whom expressed cordial partnerships with Planned Parenthood in their states, were not unanimous in backing the decision. The home page of the Montana affiliate, for example, emphasized that they did not participate in the decision and posted a letter sent to them by headquarters reiterating the official Komen statement and signed, “Warmest regards, Susan G. Komen for the Cure.” How’s that for a personal touch from the national office? By Thursday, all seven California affiliates issued a statement opposing the action.

Since its initially slow response, given the urgency of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, Komen has stepped up activity and obviously called in some help with crisis management. A board member, John D. Raffaelli, gave some condescending comments to the New York Times regarding the link to D.C.: “People don’t understand that a Congressional investigation doesn’t necessary mean a problem of substance. When people read about it in places like Texarkana, Texas, where I’m from, it sounds really bad.” Contrary to Raffaeli’s assertion, it seems like people understand quite well when politics trumps women’s lives. That awareness puts Komen in the very uncomfortable position going forward of picking sides.

Founder and CEO Nancy G. Brinker, a former ambassador to Hungary and chief of protocol under George W. Bush, attempted to correct that impression with a belated video posted on the Komen website Thursday. “We will never bow to political pressure,“ she asserted, though it is common knowledge that right-wing groups have been hounding Komen for several years to cut its ties to Planned Parenthood.

Dr. Fredrik Broekhuizen, medical director of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin and a board member of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, says he was taken by surprise, echoing responses by other affiliates reported in the press. “I thought we had common ground,” he says. Although none of the 17 affiliates that will be cut off from Komen funding are in Wisconsin, he is concerned about the possible ripple effect on breast cancer clinics to which Planned Parenthood refers patients following initial screenings. He wonders if Komen would by extension stop funding clinics that take referrals from Planned Parenthood, pointing out that one of the biggest breast cancer clinics in the state is in a Catholic hospital. “Eighty-five percent of our patients fall in the poverty level and have problems accessing traditional health insurance,” he says. “And the state government recently cut 60,000 people off Medicaid. We count on referring patients for breast and cervical cancer screening. It’s an important part of what we do in our overall reproductive health care.” He calls on women doctors and patients to mobilize and rise in protest.

The silver lining in this story has been the outpouring of support to Planned Parenthood. National organizations from the American Association of University Women and Women of Reform Judaism to NARAL and the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals are urging Komen to put politics aside and reconsider its decision. Both Credo and MoveOn have already reached more than half their individual goals of 500,000 signatures on petitions to Komen. Planned Parenthood is collecting signatures for its own letter. It reported raising more than $400,000 from over 6,000 online supporters in less than 24 hours after the story broke. Since then, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pledged a $250,000 matching gift to Planned Parenthood, saying that “politics have no place in health care.”

Online response was instantaneous. Thousands of messages flooded Facebook and Twitter, with hashtags like #occupythecure, #standwithplannedparenthood, #shameonkomen, and #komenkills. Negative responses to Komen’s decision outweighed positive responses by almost 3 to 1, according to a survey by Polipulse, a monitoring tool, with only 27 percent saying that Komen made the right decision. Only about half the responses to the tepid statement that Komen initially posted on its own Facebook page (after reportedly deleting negative comments early on) gave it a “like.” Steph Herold, a blogger who started the extremely effective I Am Dr. Tiller online project after the murder of Dr. George Tiller, posits that “the message is spreading so quickly because all kinds of people had a visceral reaction. Playing politics with cancer is a particularly low blow. Komen’s money went directly to breast cancer screenings, something that everyone and their grandma supports.”

Many of the responses have vowed to transfer donations from Komen to Planned Parenthood, while others tell personal stories of how access to breast screenings through Planned Parenthood saved their lives. While plenty of responses praise Komen for cutting out Planned Parenthood, the foundation must certainly be reeling from what Nancy Brinker calls a “dangerous distraction” from its work. Why Komen thought it could just make Planned Parenthood go away and didn’t anticipate the fallout is a puzzle. As Jodi Magee, president and CEO of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, put it matter-of-factly: “It seems to us that Komen has caved into some anti-choice pressure. Organizations like PRCH have to put up with that kind of pressure all the time.”

Much remains to be explored about Komen’s corporate and political relationships, as well as its emphasis on the “cure” rather than prevention. Betty Pinson in the Daily Kos suggests some lines of inquiry. In the meantime, breast cancer specialist Dr. Susan Love makes a powerful pitch for shifting focus on her research foundation’s website: “Rather than putting politics into the breast cancer movement, let’s rise above the political divisions and work together. Let’s redirect all the money that will be spent on investigating Planned Parenthood into funding studies looking to find the cause and prevent the disease once and for all. Let’s redirect our anger to making mammograms unnecessary because we know how to prevent the disease.”

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