Backlash grows over Susan G. Komen-Planned Parenthood flap

Female Nurse Holding Pink Breast Cancer Awareness Ribbon iStockphoto

Two days after Planned Parenthood announced that its funding from the Susan G. Komen foundation had been cut, women's health advocates are taking to the airwaves to make their dissatisfaction known, decrying the decision as a crass political calculation and urging Komen to reverse the decision.

Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, said she was "very shocked" that Komen, a leading breast cancer charity, was cutting ties, and said she hoped they would change their minds.

"I really hope that they will rethink this decision and that we can become partners again," Cecile Richards said Thursday on MSNBC. "We share with the Komen foundation the same goal, which is to make sure that women get access to health care. We were very shocked and very surprised that they decided to pull funding from our health centers, because we're a very significant provider of breast exams to women."

The breast cancer charity has been on the receiving end of scathing criticism since Tuesday, when Planned Parenthood announced that the influential charity had decided to pull hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of annual funding for breast cancer screenings and preventative education.

The organization has defended its decision as part of an ongoing effort to exact "stronger performance criteria for our grantees," but many Planned Parenthood supporters have accused Komen of caving to pressure from the right in what they cast as an ongoing assault on abortion rights.

As of Thursday afternoon, 26 Democratic senators had attached their names to a letter urging Komen to reverse the decision.

"It would be tragic if any woman--let alone thousands of women-- lost access to these potentially life-saving screenings because of a politically motivated attack," the senators wrote in the letter. "We earnestly hope that you will put women's health before partisan politics and reconsider this decision for the sake of the women who depend on both your organizations for access to the health care they need."

"It's a very sad day," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., one of the letter's co-signers, in an interview on MSNBC. "Susan G. Komen has put in place a policy that says directly that they will not provide funding for organizations like Planned Parenthood because of a partisan witch hunt in the House against Planned Parenthood."

"I would ask that all members of Susan G. Komen to reconsider that policy, because it's dangerous for women and it's dangerous for organizations," Boxer added.

When the decision was first reported two days ago, Komen representatives pointed to a new standard in its grant-allocation process as part of the impetus for the change. That standard will prohibit Komen from funding organizations that are under local, state or federal investigations going forward.

Planned Parenthood has in the last several years become a frequent target of congressional Republicans because it provides abortion services in addition to other women's health services while receiving government support. (The government support cannot be used to pay for abortions.) The organization is currently being investigated by the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee over whether or not its funding may have gone to providing abortions, but no result of that investigation has been announced.

In a conference call on Thursday, Komen founder and CEO Nancy Brinker, as well as president Liz Thompson, suggested the congressional investigation was not driving the decision after all.

Brinker said that while "investigations are an issue," another factor was that Planned Parenthood provides what they described as "pass-through" services rather than direct care for breast cancer services.

"This doesn't have really anything to do with that," Thompson said on the call. "I don't know very much about that investigation, frankly.

Brinker said that under the new standards, "we like to be able to direct a person to proper training and diagnosis, and we don't like to do pass through grants anymore." Planned Parenthood, she said, provided only pass-through services.

When asked whether or not other organizations receiving funding from Komen provide only pass-through rather than direct care, Brinker said they were "working to that goal."

Thompson noted that Komen would not be pulling grants already in place, and that three Planned Parenthood locations would continue to receive funding.

"I would like to highlight, we do have grants that will be active that will provide screening services," she said.

Questioned on the number of organizations they continue to fund which provide abortion services, Brinker said, "We're not in the abortion business -- that's not something that we ask people about."

Many have pointed to Karen Handel, a new vice president to the Komen foundation, as a possible force behind  the decision to cut off grant money Planned Parenthood. Handel, who ran for governor of Georgia in 2010, describes herself as "staunchly pro-life" and frequently called for an end to abortion during her gubernatorial bid.

In an interview with MSNBC on Thursday, Democratic Congresswoman Lauretta Sanchez cited Handel's anti-abortion rights politics as possible evidence that the decision as politically-driven.

"I think it was probably driven by politics," she said. "I do believe that the federal investigation will find no wrongdoing on the part of Planned Parenthood. They are very strict about the type of work they do and accounting for all the funds."

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, citing several anonymous sources in a Thursday morning blog post, reported that the new regulations were specifically adopted with an eye toward giving the foundation an excuse to cut ties with Planned Parenthood.

Goldberg writes:

"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."

Goldberg also writes that at least one high-profile Komen staffer, Mollie Williams, resigned in protest over the decision to defund Planned Parenthood.

Brinker and Thompson dismissed the idea that the decision was related to abortion politics, and flatly denied the accusation that the new rules were implemented with the intent of defunding Planned Parenthood.

Williams, in a statement to CBS News, said she was not responding to questions surrounding the issue, though she did note that "I believe it would be a mistake for any organization to bow to political pressure and compromise its mission."

When asked about her resignation on the conference call, Brinker and Thompson said it was not Komen policy to release information about employees.

Regardless of whether or not the decision was borne out of political motivations, however, its impact has been to dramatically mobilize Planned Parenthood donors.

Within 24 hours of the announcement Planned Parenthood had raised more $400,000 online, mostly from small donors, according to Tait Sye, a spokesman for the organization.

Additionally, the Fikes Foundation gave Planned Parenthood a $250,000 grant toward starting the Emergency Breast Health Fund, Sye said, in the aftermath of the Komen decision.

And on Thursday afternoon, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he would match up to $250,000 donations from his personal wealth.

"Politics have no place in health care," Bloomberg said in a statement. "Breast cancer screening saves lives and hundreds of thousands of women rely on Planned Parenthood for access to care. We should be helping women access that care, not placing barriers in their way."

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