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."
Another source directly involved with Komen's management activities told me that when the organization's leaders learned of the Stearns investigation, they saw an opportunity. "The cart came before the horse in this case," said the source, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity. "The rule was created to give the board of directors the excuse to stop the funding of Planned Parenthood. It was completely arbitrary. If they hadn't come up with this particular rule, they would have come up with something else in order to separate themselves from Planned Parenthood."
Komen officials have denied that the decision has had anything to do with external pressure. In an internal Komen memorandum I obtained entitled "Updated Granting Criteria/Reactive Statement and Talking Points," distributed in December, Komen officials deny to their employees that politics had anything to do with the decision. The memo, written as a Q&A, reads in part:
Q(uestion) 7: Is Komen giving into pressure from the Catholic Church/anti-abortion groups/the political right in making this change?
A(nswer) 7: Komen's decision to fund ANY grant is based on our mission priorities, a thorough community assessment, and strict eligibility and performance standards. Our granting criteria reflect our dedication to our mission and our consistent effort to invest our donors' dollars responsibly in support of our efforts to end breast cancer.
Q8: Planned Parenthood provides health services in many of the nation's poorest communities. How does your new policy align with your mission of serving women who lack resources to pay for important breast health services?
A8: Susan G. Komen is deeply committed to providing breast health services to women throughout the U.S. It is our belief that where a woman lives should not determine whether she lives. Komen provided funds for 700,000 breast screenings last year alone, and provided financial and social support to another 100,000 women, as part of our $93 million investment in education, public health outreach and service to vulnerable women last year alone. That work will continue. We believe these new standards will further enhance the integrity of our granting process and strengthen our overall community health program.
Another memo, this one from Elizabeth Thompson, the president of Komen, outlines to employees the new grant-making criteria:
In order to align the terms of the grant contract with our grant eligibility criteria and to ensure that our granting meets the highest standards, several important updates will become effective January 1, 2012. Specifically:
Currently, a Komen grant may be terminated if, among other things, the grantee loses or changes its tax exempt status, is barred from receiving federal or state funds, or if we learn of any financial and/or administrative improprieties. Going forward, these same standards will now also be used in determining eligibility for Komen grants.
Further, should Komen become aware that an applicant or its affiliates are under formal investigation for financial or administrative improprieties by local, state or federal authorities, the applicant will be ineligible to receive a grant. An organization may regain its eligibility once the investigation is concluded if the organization and its related affiliates are cleared of any wrongdoing.
This last condition, of course, is troubling on its face. Any legislator or prosecutor opposed to any aspect of a breast-cancer-care organization's work could affect its Komen funding merely by announcing the opening of an investigation. (Please read this Atlantic piece by Linda Hirshman for more on the dangerous politics of this decision.) The whole episode is troubling, and quite sad, because it will inevitably affect Komen's ability to do its work, which is of paramount importance to the cause of women's health.
Update: Mollie Williams, the Komen official who resigned to protest the organization's decision to defund Planned Parenthood, just sent me this statement, which I am reprinting in full:
Thank you for contacting me. As a public health professional, I must honor the confidentiality of my former employer, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and for this reason, I'm not responding to questions about Komen's decision to no longer fund Planned Parenthood.
However, 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.
I have deep admiration for Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the millions of women who benefit from Komen's work. It was an honor to oversee and expand their public health efforts during my six years there. At the same time, I respect the work of Planned Parenthood, including their lifesaving efforts to detect cancer in its earliest stages.
The divide between these two very important organizations saddens me. I am hopeful their passionate and courageous leaders, Nancy Brinker and Cecile Richards, can swiftly resolve this conflict in a manner that benefits the women they both serve.