In Planned Parenthood Funding Controversy, Questions of Political Motivations for Susan G. Komen for the Cure

Susan G. Komen for the Cure founder and CEO Nancy Goodman Brinker, a part-time resident of Palm Beach and a former George W. Bush appointee, denied that the initial decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood was politically motivated. (Photo courtesy of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.)

By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Few controversies have flared as quickly, caught steam so fast and come to a conclusion as rapidly as the outrage over the Komen Foundation’s withdrawal of funding for Planned Parenthood.

Short of last year’s Arab Spring, it might the most striking example yet of the power and speed of social media to spread the news — and change it.

It was just Tuesday that the news broke that Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the nation’s biggest breast-cancer fundraiser and sponsor of the annual pink-ribbon Race for the Cure, a staple that draws tens of thousands of runners in West Palm Beach, Miami and other Florida cities, was cutting its contributions to Planned Parenthood — a favorite target of anti-abortion forces, though abortions are a small part of the women’s health services the organization provides, and none of Komen’s money went toward abortions. Komen’s money went instead toward breast-cancer screenings and preventative education — $680,000 last year — largely for women from underserved communities.

By Wednesday, the story, which shocked many people who had assumed that Komen and Planned Parenthood were on the same side — the side of women’s health — dominated countless Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. By Thursday, Planned Parenthood basked in a flood of unexpected contributions, including $250,000 from billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

And on Friday, in a stunning reversal in the face of a torrential storm of bad publicity, Komen caved. It announced an about-face. Planned Parenthood could qualify for Komen grants after all.

This was no small thing. In the past five years, Planned Parenthood reported, Komen grants provided referrals for nearly 170,000 clinical breast exams and 6,400 mammograms across the nation.

This year, Planned Parenthood of South Florida and the Treasure Coast received $10,000, the only Florida affiliate of Planned Parenthood to get Komen money. President Lillian Tamayo told the Palm Beach Post that the grant paid for community outreach in poorer areas such as the Glades. The program teaches women about breast health and how to do self-exams, and refers them to screenings at one of 10 clinics, including those in Boca Raton, Lake Worth, West Palm Beach and Stuart.

Though the controversy is over for now, the fight is sure to endure. As historian Jill Lepore astutely noted in her New Yorker blog, the flareup exposed a “gruesome truth” about American politics: there is no more highly charged subject than embryos and fetuses. The fight has become almost insanely partisan, as if some women’s body parts are Republican and other part Democrat.

The current president of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards, a former deputy chief of staff for Nancy Pelosi, is the daughter of the former Texas governor Ann Richards, a prominent Democrat. Susan G. Komen for the Cure was founded in 1982 by Nancy Goodman Brinker, a Texas Republican who went on to serve in the Bush Administration. Karen Handel, Komen’s senior vice-president for public policy, is a Republican who ran for governor of Georgia in 2010. On Thursday,22 Democratic Senators sent Komen a letter asking the group to reverse its decision …

Brinker is a part-time resident of Palm Beach. A longtime fundraiser for Republican causes, she was a “Ranger” for George W. Bush’s  campaigns. Bush appointed her as ambassador to Hungary and, later, chief of protocol, an ambassadorial rank. She started her foundation in 1982 after her only sister, Susan G. Komen, died of breast cancer at age 36. The group has since raised almost $2 billion and become the largest breast-cancer charity in the world.

In an interview on Thursday, Brinker denied that the cut-off was politically motivated,but was done because Planned Parenthood was being investigated by Congress for possibly spending tax dollars on abortions. A new Komen policy prohibits grants to groups under government investigation. Left unexplained was why Planned Parenthood was the only one of roughly 2,000 organizations to which the policy was applied.

This Congressional investigation, interestingly, is the creation of US Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Republican from Ocala, who has been a longtime foe of abortions.

Last year, Stearns helped lead the charge in Congress to try to eliminate all federal funding for Planned Parenthood. That effort passed the House, 240 to 185, but the Senate voted down the House budget, 56 to 44. But not before Jon Kyl, the Republican whip, said on the floor of the Senate that abortion constitutes “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.” As Lepore wrote in The New Yorker last November, “Planned Parenthood reported that abortions make up less than 3 percent of its services, whereupon a Kyl staffer offered that what Kyl had said ‘was not intended to be a factual statement.’ ”

With Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul all on record as opposing Planned Parenthood, there’s no reason to think that the political divisions over women’s bodies and women’s health will end anytime soon.

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