Komen calls backlash "mischaracterization" as Planned Parenthood gains support

FILE - In this Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010 file photo, some of an estimated 45,000 people participate in the Susan B. Komen Race for the Cure in Little Rock, Ark. The nation's leading breast-cancer charity, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, is halting its partnerships with Planned Parenthood affiliates in 2012 - creating a bitter rift, linked to the abortion debate, between two iconic organizations that have assisted millions of women. Planned Parenthood says the cutoff, primarily affecting grants for breast exams, results from Komen bowing to pressure from anti-abortion activists. Komen says the key reason is that Planned Parenthood is under investigation in Congress - a probe launched by a conservative Republican who was urged to act by anti-abortion groups. (AP Photo/Brian Chilson)
susan g. komen, planned parenthood
In this file photo from Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010, some of an estimated 45,000 people participate in the Susan B. Komen Race for the Cure in Little Rock, Ark.

(CBS/AP) The public battle between Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Planned Parenthood is growing more heated. Supporters around the country are rallying around Planned Parenthood with donations and public condemnations of the Komen's decision to pull grant funding for breast screening.

According to Planned Parenthood, its health centers performed more than 4 million breast exams over the past five years, including nearly $170,000 as a result of Komen grants. Komen had previously provided grants for 19 Planned Parenthood Clinic, but now will only financially support three of them, Susan G. Komen for the Cure's top leaders said Thursday during a press conference.

Since the news broke, Planned Parenthood has already received $400,000 in smaller donations from 6,000 people, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a family foundation in Dallas each pledged $250,000. In a matter of days, Planned Parenthood's fundraising has exceeded the $680,000 in total grants it received from Susan G. Komen for the Cure last year.

In Washington, 26 U.S. senators signed a letter asking Komen to reconsider its decision, Political Hotsheetreported.

"It would be tragic if any woman - let alone thousands of women - lost access to these potentially lifesaving screenings because of a politically motivated attack," the senators wrote. "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."

Komen's top leaders denied Planned Parenthood's assertion that the decision was driven by pressure from anti-abortion groups in a press conference on Thursday.

"We don't base our funding decisions ... on whether one side or the other will be pleased," said Komen's founder and CEO, Nancy Brinker, depicting the criticism as a "mischaracterization" of the charity's goals and mission.

Komen has said the decision stemmed from newly adopted criteria barring grants to organizations under investigation - affecting Planned Parenthood because of an inquiry by a Republican congressman acting with encouragement from anti-abortion activists.

Brinker said Thursday that was one of several factors, adding that the charity also considered changes in the types of breast-health service providers it wanted to support. Planned Parenthood provides what Komen described as "pass-through" services rather than direct care for breast cancer services.

"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," Brinker said. She also said grants would continue this year to three of the 19 Planned Parenthood affiliates - in Denver, Southern California, and Waco, Texas - because they served women with few other options for breast cancer screening.

A source with direct knowledge of decision-making at Komen's headquarters in Dallas gave a different account, saying the grant-making criteria were adopted with the deliberate intention of targeting Planned Parenthood. The criteria's impact on Planned Parenthood and its status as the focus of government investigations were highlighted in a memo distributed to Komen affiliates in December.

According to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, a driving force behind the move was Karen Handel, who was hired by Komen last year as vice president for public policy after losing a campaign for governor in Georgia in which she stressed her anti-abortion views and frequently denounced Planned Parenthood.

Brinker, in an interview with MSNBC, said Handel didn't have a significant role in the policy change.

The source also said that Mollie Williams, who had been Komen's director of community health programs, had resigned in protest over the grant cutoff.

Williams said in an email that she could not comment on her departure, but she was clear in her views.

"I have dedicated my career to fighting for the rights of the marginalized and underserved," she wrote. "And I believe it would be a mistake for any organization to bow to political pressure and compromise its mission."

Williams said she was saddened by the rift because she admired both organizations.

"I have deep admiration for Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the millions of women who benefit from Komen's work," she added. "At the same time, I respect the work of Planned Parenthood, including their lifesaving efforts to detect cancer in its earliest stages."

Komen has also faced backlash from local affiliates. The Connecticut branch received scores of supportive emails after expressing frustration about the cutoffs.

All seven Komen affiliates in California, in a joint letter to their congressional delegation, said they were "strongly opposed" to the policy change and were working to overturn it. "Our commitment to our mission is unwavering," the letter said. "This is a misstep in that journey and ... we will do whatever it takes to do what is right for the health of women and men in California."

In New York City, a member of the Komen affiliate's medical advisory board said she would resign if the decision wasn't changed soon. "Komen is a wonderful organization and does tremendous things for women, but this is straying from their mission," said Dr. Kathy Plesser, a breast imaging radiologist. "It's sad."

The board of the Arkansas affiliate issued a statement noting that the decision was made at Komen headquarters "without input from affiliates," and called for the new policy to be changed. "We hope Komen national will reverse its position on granting to organizations under investigation because we feel decisions of this nature should be made only after the investigation is complete," the statement said.

At the Orange County affiliate in Costa Mesa, Calif., executive director Lisa Wolter said there have been lots of exchanges with headquarters.

"We're very troubled by the reaction, and we want to make sure there are clarifications," she said.

The American Association of University Women, in protest over Komen's decision, said it was scrapping plans to offer a Komen Race for the Cure as one of the activities at its upcoming National Conference for College Women Student Leaders.

Said Lisa Maatz, the association's director of public policy, "AAUW is disappointed that some are playing politics with women's health and jeopardizing care for the most vulnerable among us,"

Though comments posted on Komen's Facebook page seemed to be mostly critical of the grant decision, Brinker said at her news conference that donations to the charity had increased 100 percent since Tuesday without providing specific figures, CBS News reported.

She also said there were other organizations receiving Komen grants that might be adversely affected by the new criteria about investigations, but she did not identify them.