An entirely avoidable, and deeply regrettable, controversy has been raging this week over the decision by the (formerly highly esteemed) Susan G. Komen For the Cure foundation, the world's leading breast-cancer research advocacy group, to cut its support for Planned Parenthood, which used Komen dollars (about $600,000 annually) to pay for breast-screening exams for poor people. (The Atlantic's Nicholas Jackson has an excellent summary of the controversy so far.)
Komen, the marketing juggernaut that brought the world the ubiquitous pink ribbon campaign, says it cut off Planned Parenthood because of a newly adopted foundation rule prohibiting it from funding any group that is under formal investigation by a government body. (Planned Parenthood is being investigated by Rep. Cliff Stearns, an anti-abortion Florida Republican, who says he is trying to learn if the group spent public money to provide abortions.)
But three sources with direct knowledge of the Komen decision-making process told me that the rule was adopted in order to create an excuse to cut off Planned Parenthood. (Komen gives out grants to roughly 2,000 organizations, and the new "no-investigations" rule applies to only one so far.) The decision to create a rule that would cut funding to Planned Parenthood, according to these sources, was driven by the organization's new senior vice president for public policy, Karen Handel, a former gubernatorial candidate from Georgia who is staunchly anti-abortion and who has said that since she is "pro-life, I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood." (The Komen grants to Planned Parenthood did not pay for abortion or contraception services, only cancer detection, according to all parties involved.) I've tried to reach Handel for comment, and will update this post if I speak with her.
The decision, made in December, caused an uproar inside Komen. Three sources told me that the organization's top public health official, Mollie Williams, resigned in protest immediately following the Komen board's decision to cut off Planned Parenthood. Williams, who served as the managing director of community health programs, was responsible for directing the distribution of $93 million in annual grants. Williams declined to comment when I reached her yesterday on whether she had resigned her position in protest, and she declined to speak about any other aspects of the controversy.
But John Hammarley, who until recently served as Komen's senior communications adviser and who was charged with managing the public relations aspects of Komen's Planned Parenthood grant, said that Williams believed she could not honorably serve in her position once Komen had caved to pressure from the anti-abortion right. "Mollie is one of the most highly respected and ethical people inside the organization, and she felt she couldn't continue under these conditions," Hammarley said. "The Komen board of directors are very politically savvy folks, and I think over time they thought if they gave in to the very aggressive propaganda machine of the anti-abortion groups, that the issue would go away. It seemed very short-sighted to me."
Hammarley explained that the Planned Parenthood issue had vexed Komen for some time. "About a year ago, a small group of people got together inside the organization to talk about what the options were, what would be the ramifications of staying the course, or of telling our affiliates they can't fund Planned Parenthood, or something in between." He went on, "As we looked at the ramifications of ceasing all funding, we felt it would be worse from a practical standpoint, from a public relations standpoint, and from a mission standpoint. The mission standpoint is, 'How could we abandon our commitment to the screening work done by Planned Parenthood?'" But the Komen board made the decision despite the recommendation of the organization's professional staff to keep funding Planned Parenthood.
Hammarley was laid off by Komen last year as part of a reorganization of the group's media division, but he says he has no bitter feelings toward the group: "This organization has saved lives and raised consciousness all over the world. It's an extraordinarily successful story, and I couldn't find a single bad word to say about its work. But it has had some growing pains in its politics and we see that with the Planned Parenthood story."
He called the controversy over Planned Parenthood funding "a burr in the saddle of Komen, but it withstood the issue for years and years." Hammarley said the issue became newly urgent after Handel was brought on last year. "The internal debate on a senior level rose in the past eight months or so, coinciding with her hiring."