Who Is Behind Susan G. Komen's Split From Planned Parenthood?

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The mysterious decision by the leading breast-cancer charity to stop funding the country's most prominent reproductive-health provider.

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The nation's leading breast-cancer charity, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which has spent nearly $2 billion over the past 30 years for breast cancer education, health services, research, and advocacy, has announced that it will end its longtime partnership with the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The announcement has sparked bitter debate among representatives from all concerned parties, highlighting the ongoing debate over abortion.

Planned Parenthood, currently the largest provider of reproductive health services in the United States, is widely known for helping women to obtain abortions and contraceptives. But those services, despite their high profile, account for only 38 percent (PDF) of the organization's work. And though Republicans often portray Planned Parenthood as strictly an abortion provider, using the phrase to incite anger among pro-life constituents and gain support for cuts to federal funding -- it comes largely through the Title X and Medicaid programs -- the fact is that the organization devotes most of its money and manpower to screening for breast, cervical, and testicular cancers; treating menopause; testing for sexually transmitted diseases; and more.

The money provided by Susan G. Komen for the Cure went to just a fraction -- about 19 according to one report -- of Planned Parenthood's more than 85 affiliates. And it was all -- roughly $680,000 last year and $580,000 the year before that -- used for breast-cancer screening and other breast-health services for low-income, uninsured, and under-insured women.

"It's hard to understand how an organization with whom we share a mission of saving women's lives could have bowed to this kind of bullying."

Komen has been criticized in the past for donating to Planned Parenthood and the official response has always been that, despite the controversy surrounding some of its programs, the organization was the only one working to provide breast-health services to women in need in dozens of communities around the United States.

So why the sudden change?

Cutting funds to Planned Parenthood is the result of a newly adopted policy to block grants to organizations currently under investigation by any local, state, or federal authorities, Komen spokeswoman Leslie Aun told the Associated Press. A statement released Tuesday evening added: "While it is regrettable when changes in priorities and policies affect any of our grantees, such as a long-standing partner like Planned Parenthood, we must continue to evolve to best meet the needs of the women we serve and most fully advance our mission."

The key factor behind Komen's decision, Aun told the Associated Press, is not ongoing protests of Planned Parenthood -- the Alliance Defense Fund was quick to praise Komen "for seeing the contradiction between its lifesaving work and its relationship with an abortionist that has ended millions of lives" -- but an audit launched by Rep. Cliff Stearns, chairman of the Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, to determine whether public money had been spent on abortions over the last decade.

When launched way back in late September, Stearns' review was described as the first-ever oversight on taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood. But his motivations have been questioned repeatedly. Rep. Henry Waxman called out (PDF) Stearns: "Your fervent ideological opposition to Planned Parenthood does not justify launching this intrusive investigation." And Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), has said that investigation was politically motivated; Stearns must bow to the demands of Florida's 6th congressional district, a largely Republican area of North Central Florida that includes parts of Ocala and Gainesville.

Perhaps best known for his position overseeing the investigation into the Solyndra loan guarantee, Stearns has spent more than 20 years in Congress. Over such a long period, his political opponents inevitably called him a number of negative things. Among them, "bully" might be the easiest to print.

"It's hard to understand how an organization with whom we share a mission of saving women's lives could have bowed to this kind of bullying. It's really hurtful," Richards told the Associated Press. More than confused, Richard was shocked to learn about decision in a phone call this past December. She called it "incredibly surprising" that Komen's president, Elizabeth Thompson, was unwilling to have a discussion about the quick shift.

According to Jezebel's Erin Gloria Ryan, however, the influence of another key player in the Komen organization goes a long way in explaining its decision to defund: Karen Handel, who ran for governor of Georgia in 2010 and lost, despite an endorsement by none other than Sarah Palin, has been Komen's senior vice president for public policy since April 2011. On her campaign blog (fire up the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine because, curiously, these pages don't exist anymore), Handel wrote: "I will be a pro-life governor who will work tirelessly to promote a culture of life in Georgia. ... I believe that each and every unborn child has inherent dignity, that every abortion is a tragedy, and that government has a role, along with the faith community, in encouraging women to choose life in even the most difficult of circumstances. ...since I am pro-life, I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood."

Handel even "promised to eliminate funding for breast and cervical cancer screenings provided by" Planned Parenthood, according to Jezebel.

Some of those affected are still figuring out how to respond to Komen's decision. "We're kind of reeling," Patrick Hurd, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia, told the Associated Press. "It sounds almost trite ... but cancer doesn't care if you're pro-choice, anti-choice, progressive, conservative. Victims of cancer could care less about people's politics." And Hurd knows. Not just as the suit overseeing his organization's operations in one region, but as the husband of Betsi Hurd, a veteran of many Komen fundraising races and a current breast cancer patient.

Image: Joshua Roberts/Reuters.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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