6 Things You Need To Know About the Komen Foundation/Planned Parenthood Controversy (Updated: Komen Reverses Decision)

(Updated 2/3/2012 11:40 am)

By now, unless you're living on Mars, your newspaper reports, radio waves, Facebook and Twitter streams are being swamped with stories, images and chattering about the shocking decision of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the nation's most ubiquitous breast cancer awareness foundation, to essentially sever financial ties with Planned Parenthood.

Within a few short days, Komen's "choice" went from being a heavy blow against women's health to a heavy blow against them--and victory for Planned Parenthood supporters. On Friday morning, February 3rd, Komen issued a (weak) apology and agreed to keep funding to Planned Parenthood--although pro-choicers remained dubious that full funding would be restored without pressure. But it was too late for their brand; once people started investigating Komen, its non-partisan, mainstream image was tarnished by some unpleasant revelations.

The initial, disheartening move to end funding, ostensibly due to the latter's being "under investigation" (a bogus congressional investigation spurred by the right wing) was clearly politically motivated, despite weak denials from Komen officials. It's unleashed a hail of criticism and controversy that seems as large, if not even larger, than when Planned Parenthood was under threat of being defunded by the federal government. Whether Americans were suspicious of Komen to begin with or just fed up with the politicization of women's health, this feels like the last straw.

The reality is that between the backlash and the uncomfortable facts that have been bubbling to the surface about Komen's way of conducting business, the story has shifted from the war on Planned Parenthood to the campaign against the truth being waged by "Big Pink." Here are the key facts and context you need to know about this story, which tore through the news cycle for several days, the most decisive pro-choice victory in a while.

1. Although it started off as a blow, this ended up as a PR disaster for Komen--and a win for Planned Parenthood. 

When the decision was announced over the Planned Parenthood email list (it had initially been broken a short while earlier), it felt like a crippling blow to women's healthcare--and in some ways it still is. But the big story is actually how furious many Komen supporters are, how many have taken to the Internet, to petitions, and more to declare the end of their support and donations to Komen.

This is a big change, considering the fact that Komen was a beloved, celebrity-endorsed brand -- and Planned Parenthood was increasingly under attack. But something shifted after this announcement: immediate analyses from social media in fact show that the number of angry comments against Komen and in favor Planned Parenthood vastly outnumbered the comments that applauded the decision -- even as Komen began to frantically erase them on its Facebook page.

Marketing expert Kivi Leroux Miller calls Komen's actions a "communications debacle unfolding before us," writing, "At one point last night, I did a quick count and found the ratio of anti-Komen decisions to pro-Komen decisions to be about 80 to 1 on Twitter." Miller has a blow-by-blow post on how the news broke and essentially how the Komen foundation utterly failed at every step to anticipate and properly deal with the outrage.

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood, in a few short days, nearly raised the entire amount of money lost from Komen -- $650,000 has been pledged as of February 1. On Thursday, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $250,000 donation, and Facebook has been flooded by loyal supporters posting, "I still stand with Planned Parenthood" graphics on their pages.

This video of Susan G. Komen CEO Nancy Brinker with Andrea Mitchell shows how poorly this has been thought through. She's hedging, speaking in jargon, and denying any political motivation to the decision. It's a disaster of an interview:

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2. Despite the uproar, this disheartening move was a natural end-result of the political "war on women"--a war which will continue to try to isolate abortion providers at all costs.

As heartening as the outpouring and the reversal has been, and as satisfying as it's been on some level to watch Komen's PR strategy implode, the initial decision is still bad news, and it comes after a year of bad policy. One of the primary items on the right-wing agenda since the GOP swept into Congress in 2010 has been to isolate, ostracize, harass and shame Planned Parenthood. They've tried to de-fund it at the federal and state levels and launched a bogus investigation. Planned Parenthood and all abortion providers are part of a never-ending paranoid obsession. Many bloggers have been comparing it to the Salem, Massachusetts hysteria, the kind of witch-hunt that taints everyone by association.

They've already succeeded in making abortion a pariah among medical procedures, the only one not funded by Medicaid, the only one hushed up and shunted aside. Now they're trying to extend that blacklist to Planned Parenthood, and backlash aside, Komen's move shows that this relentless campaign has met with some success.

3. Komen is a corporatist nonprofit organization with a dubious record when it comes to putting women's needs above its own interests.

While some of what Komen has done is undoubtedly beneficial, it is an organization that has been in trouble for corporate ties and lack of concern for health issues for a long time. In a Daily Kos diary, user Betty Pinson has an explosive account of her own research into Komen. Her journey began with a rude awakening when she called a local politician to advocate for a cancer treatment funding program for low-income women--and discovered that Komen was lobbying against it. Here's what she says about Komen:

They fought behind the scenes in my state to prevent the governor from adopting the treatment program. They worked for several years to stall or kill the Breast Cancer & Environmental Research Act. In the end, they eviscerated it by removing new funding for environmental research and substituting a panel to review all research on breast cancer & environment. Using private funds, they recently collaborated with the Institute of Medicine to develop said report. Released last December, it sadly detailed the same old arguments that there's no evidence of links between environmental toxins and that no further research should be done on the subject since everyone has those toxins in their bodies already. Instead they chose to blame breast cancer patients for getting the disease (more here).

In 2009, Komen lobbied behind the scenes to weaken the healthcare bill (ACA) as it was being debated in Congress. They hired Hadassah Lieberman, wife of Joe, in an effort to convince Joementum to vote against the Public Option. Komen spent over $1 million in 2008 & 2009, on behind-the-scenes lobbying related to the healthcare reform bill, so who knows what else was on their agenda.

She also notes CEO Brinker's ties to George W. Bush and other Republicans -- which partially explains her institution's opposition to progressive policy.

These kinds of positions go hand-in-hand with being buddied up to corporate behemoths, as Komen is--and becoming more focused on appearance than results.

The list goes on--Komen has also been accused of being overly litigious over use of the word "cure," which began to raise public ire and suspicion that the charity was more concerned with its image than the "cure" it claimed to be desperately seeking.

The corporatization/sanitization of breast cancer that Komen and similar organizations practice has been labeled "Pinkwashing." A new documentary titled Pink Ribbons, Inc. is due out in Canada this weekend. Watch the trailer:

4. Even within this context, this decision was so heated it led to resignations and defections within Komen.

Contrary to the spin put out by Komen, the decision caused tremendous friction within the organization. Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic made some phone calls on Thursday morning, and his sources told him their perception of what happened once the decision was reached:

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 offered a statement to Goldberg saying she hoped that Komen and Planned Parenthood would find a way to work together. Meanwhile, several Komen chapters, including affiliates in Colorado and Connecticut, have expressed their dissent with the national group's decision and their desire to stay in partnership with Planned Parenthood locally.

This may explain some of the reason for Komen's eventual reversal.

5. The new policy was created expressly to defund Planned Parenthood, not as a blanket rule.

Susan G. Komen top brass are claiming that the sloughing off of PPFA is purely a side-effect of a new rule that prohibits funding organizations under political investigation. However, Goldberg notes that according to his research, the order was reversed: the investigation was a convenient way to get rid of PPFA.

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.) 

But if the "blanket rule" applies to all entities under investigation, why is Komen still funding Penn State? At Mother Jones, Adam Serwer makes this brilliant catch. Komen, he notes,

currently fund[s] cancer research at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center to the tune of $7.5 million. Like Planned Parenthood, Penn State is currently the subject of a federal government investigation, and like the Planned Parenthood grant, the Penn State grant appears to violate a new internal rule at Komen that bans grants to organizations that are under investigation by federal, state, or local governments. But so far, only the Planned Parenthood grants appear to have been cancelled.

Sounds like a double-standard is in place.

6. It is widely understood that the anti-gay, anti-choice Palin pal who's a new VP at Komen had a major role in the company's new direction--and replaced a Democratic lobbyist.

Jezebel dubs the aforementioned "no grants to institutions under investigations" rule the "Handel rule," after Karen Handel, the company's new vice-president, plucked from the far-right of the Republican party. Handel got caught red-handed retweeting a nasty little tidbit after the decision was announced, and then later deleted the tweet--but not before the screengrab was captured, with tens of thousands of views already.


This tweet disappeared, but others, revealing Handel's ultra-conservative bona-fides, remain. At Jezebel, Erin Gloria Ryan goes back through Handel's previous tweets:

Handel didn't bother to scrub her earlier political tweets before becoming the Senior Vice President of Public Policy at Susan G Komen for the Cure. Like this one, where she talked about how great it was to hang out with pro-life organizations. Or this one, where she promised to pass a racist immigration law in Georgia, like the one they have in Arizona. Or the celebratory tweets where she's just beside herself that Sarah Palin endorsed her, making her an honorary Mama Grizzly. Or all the tweets where she promised Georgians to get rid of Obamacare— because health care is something you earn, especially if you have cancer, right, non-doctor lady who works for Susan G. Komen for the Cure making health care decisions for poor women? 

It seems that just before Handel was hired, a previous Democratic-leaning VP left Komen. Megan Carpentier at Raw Story has dug up information around that staff transition:

Before Handel’s hiring, Komen’s lobbying shop was staunchly Democratic — from its head to its hired guns...And when their lead lobbyist, former Democratic staffer Jennifer Luray, quietly left in 2010, she took with her a six-figure severance package not in keeping with an employee that just found a new job.

At the time Handel was hired as a consultant — shortly after Luray left — Handel told the local magazine Northside Woman that Komen was her first and only client, and that her role was to “[work] with [the affiliates] to make sure they are as strong as they can be”...That would seem to belie Komen Foundation President Nancy Brinker’s assertion today that Handel wasn’t involved in the decision to end most affiliates’ grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings, let alone her assertion that none of their decisions were “political.”

Handel and Brinker are in the middle of a genuine firestorm, deservedly so.

Here's the reality -- the war on Planned Parenthood will continue and the effort to isolate it from the medical community will continue. But the pro-choice community can be thankful that this nasty public breakup reflects well on Planned Parenthood, and poorly on those who disavow it. It reflects on those disavowers so badly that many of us have remembered just how pernicious certain aspects of the mainstream breast cancer awareness movement has been, and redoubled our suspicions.

Like many dozens of others this week, I've gone back to Barbara Ehrenreich's Cancerland to be reminded of this truth: "In the harshest judgment, the breast-cancer cult serves as an accomplice in global poisoning -- normalizing cancer, prettying it up, even presenting it, perversely, as a positive and enviable experience."

Planned Parenthood keeps its focus on women's health, plain and simple, and includes abortion as part of that comprehensive approach. It doesn't try to gussy up health issues, or prettify them, or politicize them. It's the other side that does the politicizing. Maybe the outrage and the mea culpa it forced Komen to issue will finally make other organizations think twice before they stab a beloved health organization in the back the way Komen has done.

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