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Susan G. Komen for the Cure has long been under pressure

Antiabortion activists have tried for years to break the foundation's ties to Planned Parenthood.

February 03, 2012|By Karen Kaplan, Shari Roan and Eryn Brown, Los Angeles Times
  • The Susan Komen For The Cure international headquarters are shown in the Dallas suburb of Addison, Texas.
The Susan Komen For The Cure international headquarters are shown in the… (LM Otero/Associated Press )

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?"

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