About-Face for the Cure

Komen's stance on Planned Parenthood funding reverberates locally

Austin Planned Parenthood's Sarah Wheat
Austin Planned Parenthood's Sarah Wheat (Photo by John Anderson)

When the news became public on Jan. 31 that Susan G. Komen for the Cure's national office had come up with new policy that would keep Planned Parenthood from receiving grant funds from any Komen affiliate across the country, the phones at Austin's Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capital Region and Komen's Austin branch started ringing off the hook. "The community response was just phenomenal," says Sarah Wheat, Austin PP's co-interim CEO. "Our phones, email, and Facebook did not stop." It was equally busy for Komen. "It was intense," says Christy Casey-Moore, the local affiliate's executive director.

So it was around the country, with PP and Komen caught in an apparent political crossfire generated at least partly by Karen Handel, a 2010 Georgia GOP gubernatorial candidate and now-former national Komen vice president who was reportedly the driving force behind the policy change at Komen – which, Komen sources have told reporters at the Huffington Post and the Associated Press, was the goal. There's no doubt that anti-choice groups around the country, including Texas Right to Life, have long waged PR campaigns to try to shame Komen into banning any of its donor-generated funds from going to PP because, the groups allege, giving any money to PP is tantamount to funding abortion – despite the fact that no Komen funds go to support abortion care, just as no federal or state funds granted to PP do.

That reality, however, didn't stop Handel from allegedly urging a strategy that would allow Komen to withdraw all support for the nation's single largest provider of women's health services. Wheat says she first got word of the national policy changes in a Jan. 3 letter from the Austin affiliate. According to a new policy handed down from national, no funds would be granted to organizations facing any of three issues: disbarment from receiving state or federal funds, having key personnel convicted of financial crimes, or being an applicant or affiliate of one under local, state, or federal investigation. "We responded saying, 'Great, because we don't have any of these problems,'" Wheat says. On Jan. 22, a second letter came, with number three on the list highlighted. The letter said that "therefore our application can't be considered under this grant cycle," Wheat recalls. At issue is an investigation prompted by Florida GOP Rep. Cliff Stearns, who alleges – as many have in the past – that PP funds support abortion care. "We're widely and frequently audited," says Wheat.

Former Komen VP Karen Handel
Former Komen VP Karen Handel

The national Komen organization's new rules meant that none of the dozens of Komen affiliates across the nation could actually grant locally donated funds to local PPs, even when those affiliates had determined that to do so would be the best way to support local women in need of breast screenings and medical care. Locally, the partnership between Komen Austin and PP goes back six years; in that time, Komen funds have paid for breast health services – screenings, referrals for diagnostics and other medical intervention, as well as intensive follow-up and aftercare – for more than 700 women. Nationally, Komen grants have helped PP clinics provide nearly 170,000 breast exams and more than 6,400 referrals for mammography.

The response to the Komen decision was swift – and ugly – and national Komen officials immediately began backpedaling. Komen founder Nancy Brinker (who started the organization as a promise to her sister, who died of breast cancer, to press for a cure) told reporters the decision wasn't about adopting an anti-choice agenda, but instead about granting funds more directly to diagnostic services, like mammograms. That, too, is a problematic explanation, however, in part because women generally first need a referral – from a doctor or clinician, like those at PP – to obtain a mammogram. In less than a week, Komen reversed its decision, and Wheat says Austin PP was asked to resubmit its application for grant funding that would begin at the end of March.

This is not the first time the Komen organization has come under fire. Komen has taken legal action against groups using the phrase "for the cure" in fundraising activities and has weathered criticism for dismissing possible links between breast cancer and the chemical bisphenol A – while taking large donations from companies that regularly use BPA in their products. And while Komen's national organization donates millions to cancer research, it is the affiliates that take local donation dollars to fund free cancer screenings and access to medical treatment that low-income and uninsured women need for early cancer detection and treatment.

This is no small issue in Texas, where the budget for women's health services was slashed dramatically by state lawmakers last year, stripping two-thirds of the annual allocation to provide basic reproductive and family-planning health services to hundreds of thousands of low-income women – a move made in a deliberate attempt to defund PP, but which instead has defunded many respected and veteran providers of health care. (For more on this, see "The Destruction of Texas Health Care," Feb. 3.) Given Texas' dicey landscape for women's health care, Komen's Texas affiliates have become trusted partners to many providers across the state. In Austin, for example, the current $19,000 grant provides screenings and intensive follow-up care for more than 100 women under 40 years old.

Casey-Moore, executive director of the Austin Komen affiliate, says she's keenly aware of the need for women's health services and the role local Komen affiliates have played in Texas to help to fill service gaps. Since 1999, the Austin affiliate alone has given out $10.5 million in grant funds to a variety of local providers to give women access to life-saving breast care. In 2010 alone, the organization gave out roughly $1.2 million to 12 providers – including Austin's PP, Seton's mobile mammography, and UT's Women's Wellness Program, among others. "Knowing what the economy looks like year to year, [I] am always concerned about filling the gaps for women," Casey-Moore says. And regardless of this latest dustup, she says Austin's Komen will continue on that mission. She hopes the controversy doesn't hurt the organization's reputation as an important local partner in women's health. "We're going to do everything we can to get the maximum number of dollars granted back out into the community," she says. "I believe wholeheartedly in the local organization and what we can do locally" to change women's lives.

Indeed, Wheat says she too hopes the controversy won't impinge on Komen's ability to continue helping women in need. The local response to the funding ban was swift: In three days, the local PP collected donations from 200 people, 128 of whom had never before given money to PP. "The community was frankly appalled that we wouldn't be on the same page" on this issue, Wheat says. But she adds that PP and its donors also hope the "partnership gets back on track" and that Komen will be able to continue to "do what they do across the country, which is to help fill the [women's health care] gap."

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women's health, Planned Parenthood, Karen Handel, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Komen, Christy Casey-Moore, Austin Komen, war on women, Planned Parenthood for the Texas Capital Region, Sarah Wheat, Nancy Brinker, breast cancer, cancer screening, family planning, reproductive health, health care

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