Susan G. Komen for the Cure has long been under pressure
As a minority women’s health activist, Eve Sanchez Silver was proud of her work with Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The organization had almost single-handedly turned breast cancer awareness into a national cause, with its pink ribbons appearing on tote bags, containers of yogurt and even NFL football fields.
But in 2004, she learned that some of the group’s local chapters gave money to Planned Parenthood affiliates to pay for breast exams for low-income women. Silver couldn’t help feeling that the more money Planned Parenthood had, the more abortions its clinics could perform.
By the end of the year, she had resigned from Komen’s Hispanic-Latino Advisory Committee and found a new mission: pressure Komen to cut all financial ties to Planned Parenthood.
“You cannot be a life-affirming organization in league with an organization that kills people,” Silver said.
So began a slow-growing fissure between two pillars of women’s health that culminated in a full-blown breach this week when it became known that Komen had decided to stop funding about $650,000 in breast-health services at 16 Planned Parenthood affiliates. On Friday, in the face of overwhelming public pressure, Komen reversed itself.
But it may have come too late to pull the venerable breast cancer organization out of the polarizing national debate about abortion.
Komen founder and chief executive Nancy Brinker insisted Friday that the foundation’s new rules preventing grants to groups that were subject to government investigations had not been designed to target Planned Parenthood and had nothing to do with its role as an abortion provider. “We do not want our mission marred or affected by politics — anyone’s politics,” Brinker said in a statement.
By then, a key officer at its Dallas headquarters had resigned, and others in the group’s local affiliates had threatened to follow suit if the decision was not reversed. Members of Congress admonished the foundation for playing politics with women’s health. Irate women denounced Komen on the Internet and pledged to boycott its upcoming “Race for the Cure” events, which raise several million dollars each year.
The situation has been a “total embarrassment” for Komen, said Tom Madden, chief executive of TransMedia Group, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based public relations and crisis management company. “I can’t believe an organization like Komen wasn’t aware of what was going on.”
There had been early signs that Komen executives realized their new stance toward Planned Parenthood could result in a public backlash.
The headquarters made no announcement of its decision late last year to change its funding rules. It relied on its local affiliates to inform the Planned Parenthood chapters they funded that its grant-making criteria had changed.
Over the last few weeks, officials at Planned Parenthood’s New York City headquarters received word from multiple affiliates that their Komen grants would not be renewed. At that point, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, sought a meeting with Komen officials but was rebuffed, said spokeswoman Shawn Rhea.
Instead, Komen issued a statement that it would no longer give money to organizations that were under government investigation. As a result, Komen said Planned Parenthood was no longer eligible to receive funds because it was the subject of an inquiry launched by Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) to determine whether the clinics had used public money to fund abortions, which is prohibited by law. Such an inquiry is not a formal congressional investigation.
Supporters of Planned Parenthood — including dozens of members of Congress — cried foul. In a letter to colleagues, Rep.Michael M. Honda(D-San Jose) called the Stearns inquiry a “sham investigation” that was “politically motivated.... The fact that the Komen Foundation is using this investigation as the basis for its decision is distressing.”
In fact, though, abortion opponents had been putting the squeeze on Komen for years. Silver’s work at an antiabortion group called the International Coalition of Color for Life in Red Bank, N.J., and with like-minded activists was paying off.
Each year, the foundation’s local affiliates sponsor more than 100 fundraising runs and walks around the country. In the weeks leading up to those events, some affiliates receive calls from antiabortion groups threatening to boycott the events and to stop frequenting the businesses that sponsor them, said John Hammarley, a former senior communications advisor at Komen who was laid off last year during a reorganization. (He says he harbors no ill will toward Komen.)
Part of Hammarley’s job was helping local affiliates deal with the flare-ups. “The issue of Komen’s involvement with Planned Parenthood was the single ongoing issue that caused some controversy,” he said. “It was an irritation: How many calls have we gotten this month? How many people are upset?”
Churches and schools with antiabortion beliefs also made a point of boycotting Race for the Cure events, forbidding students from forming teams, Silver said.
Eventually a small group of Komen staffers including Hammarley began discussing a strategy for managing the Planned Parenthood issue, analyzing a number of options including halting all grants to Planned Parenthood, maintaining the status quo or something in between, he said. After assessing how these alternatives could affect Komen and its affiliates, they recommended staying the course to avoid a backlash.
“Any retreat from that would have the potential of upsetting any number of populations — the affiliates, the patients, or political factions,” Hammarley said.
But when Stearns opened his inquiry in September, abortion opponents saw it as a perfect opening to press Komen. Among them, many believe, was Karen Handel, who had joined Komen about five months earlier as the organization’s senior vice president for public policy.
Handel, a self-described pro-life Christian, had served as Georgia’s secretary of state and lost a close race to be the Republican nominee for governor in 2010. During that campaign, she told voters she was “staunchly and unequivocally pro-life” and pledged to end state grants to Planned Parenthood clinics that funded breast and cervical cancer screening programs.
Handel did not return calls to discuss the matter.
Brinker herself has given tens of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates and committees, including antiabortion politicians like President George W. Bushand House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), according to Federal Election Commission records.
Despite Brinker’s insistence this week that the decision had unanimous backing from the staff and board, not everyone was happy with the decision. Mollie Williams, Komen’s managing director for community health programs, quit the organization the day after the decision was made in December. Brinker declined to discuss Williams’ departure this week, but people familiar with the details of the situation say she resigned in protest.
In a statement, Williams said she couldn’t talk about the reasons for her resignation. “However,” she added, “anyone who knows me personally would tell you that I am an advocate for women’s health. I have dedicated my career to fighting for the rights of the marginalized and underserved. And I believe it would be a mistake for any organization to bow to political pressure and compromise its mission.”
Members of Komen affiliates were also alarmed by the decision. Leaders of the Denver outpost released a letter to their supporters to make it clear that they had nothing to do with the move and had initiated a “fight to reverse this decision.” Other chapters weighed in as well, ultimately succeeding in restoring Planned Parenthood’s funding eligibility.
Komen board member John Raffaelli, a Washington lobbyist, said he hoped the organization would learn something from the controversy. “How does a women’s health organization keep abortion from interfering with its mission?” he said. “I think that’s the question we have to deal with in the future.”
Silver, the antiabortion activist, said she was never convinced that Komen officials were ready to cut their ties with Planned Parenthood. Had they been serious, she said, they could have made their opposition to Planned Parenthood’s abortion activities plain instead of spinning a story about technical changes to funding rules.
“Komen’s ideology was still in league with Planned Parenthood,” Silver said. Abortion opponents who thought they had notched a victory this week will be “very distraught and disappointed,” she added.
Conservative activists had been making plans to step up fundraising on Komen’s behalf, but those efforts have stopped.
Silver said she would continue pressuring Komen until it made a clean break from Planned Parenthood.
Times Staff Writer Jeannine Stein contributed to this report.