There's Something Rotten at the Komen Foundation

Nancy Brinker, founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, had a placid expression on her face when she assured MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell last week that Karen Handel had nothing much to do with the foundation’s decision to cease funding breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood clinics. Brinker was speaking of Komen’s vice president for public policy, a recent hire who stated during her  2010 Georgia gubernatorial campaign that de-funding Planned Parenthood was a policy priority. When Komen cut funds last week to the largest provider of breast cancer screenings in the country, fingers pointed to Handel as the likely catalyst behind the move. Brinker denied it with a straight face.

But Karen Handel herself said otherwise. She offered her resignation letter this morning in the wake of the Komen debacle, shortly after the foundation released a hedging statement about retaining Planned Parenthood’s grant eligibility in the future. Handel writes: “I openly acknowledge my role in the (Planned Parenthood) matter and continue to believe our decision was the best one for Komen’s future and the women we serve.” She contends that the new policy would have “enabled Komen to deliver even greater community impact,” and suggests that the decision was not about politics: rather, the public response turned it into “something about politics.”

Handel adds that Komen began the discussion about separating from Planned Parenthood before she arrived. But John Hammerly a former senior communications advisor at Komen who left the foundation last August, tells The Washington Post: “Questions about the issue of our involvement with Planned Parenthood significantly ramped up at the time Komen decided to hire Karen.” Another source that spoke under condition of anonymity to the Associated Press reported that Handel was the driving force behind a policy change deliberately intended to target Planned Parenthood. While Komen funds 2,000 organizations, its initial claim that it would cease supporting organizations under federal, state, or local investigation only impacted Planned Parenthood. Komen made no mention of changes to, for example, grants it makes to Pennsylvania State University, which is under investigation for an alleged cover-up of child sexual abuse by former football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

Karen Handel’s saga with Komen is one of the most public indications of internal discord at the Komen foundation, but it is hardly an isolated one. Numerous local Komen affiliates publicized their opposition to the head office’s policy on Planned Parenthood in the days following its announcement. All seven California affiliates signed a joint letter of protest. One top-level Komen official, Mollie Williams, resigned immediately after the board finalized the decision in December. While Williams wouldn’t comment on the specifics about her departure, her statement to the Associated Press made her views plain. "I have dedicated my career to fighting for the rights of the marginalized and underserved," she wrote in an email. "And I believe it would be a mistake for any organization to bow to political pressure and compromise its mission."

Meanwhile, the non-stop flow of leaks to the media is a sure sign that many Komen insiders are unhappy with their organization making decisions that seem unlikely to be in the best interests of women’s health.

Any large nonprofit is bound to have its share of internal disagreement about policy decisions. Susan G. Komen for the Cure built its reputation by cultivating a grassroots community that felt non-partisan: people of every political stripe are impacted by breast cancer, and its prevention is something that, it seems, we can all get behind. What fueled the fire of the backlash last week was that Komen plainly chose to satisfy the complaints of anti-abortion organizations rather than ensure lifesaving care to the low-income women who rely on Planned Parenthood clinics. Nancy Brinker herself, in her 2010 memoir, declared that cutting funds to Planned Parenthood clinics would leave thousands of women bereft of the preventive services that Komen spent decades championing as essential in the battle against breast cancer.

But Komen didn’t just lose sight of its mission; it lost sight of its founding principle. As Katha Pollitt has pointed out, the foundation emerged at a time when breast cancer was hush-hush. Komen had feminist roots in challenging the perception that women’s bodies are shameful, and that a cancer that primarily affects women is not as important as a cancer that equally affects men. Thirty years ago, this silent sexism showed up in minimal research dollars put towards breast cancer, poor treatment, and a lack of public discussion about the disease. Obituaries would use euphemisms for the disease, for example, people died “after a long illness,” rather than breast cancer. At its core, the Komen Foundation changed that and brought breast cancer out into the open.

Thousands of people donated more than $3 million to Planned Parenthood in the days following the news about Komen’s cuts. Others are turning their attention to alternative organizations like Breast Cancer Action, which, unlike Komen, focuses on the environmental causes of the disease. Komen, meanwhile, has a long journey before it regains the widespread respect it once inspired. It not only must re-discover its mission of seeing a world without breast cancer, but it has to return to its founding roots of centering the autonomy and worth of women’s bodies. The overwhelming response to Handel and Susan G. Komen for the Cure reveals that the public—including breast cancer survivors and their allies—are satisfied with nothing less.