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A Times Editorial

Public outpouring reverses Komen's error

Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation did the right thing Friday in admitting its mistake, apologizing and reinstating grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings. And the public — with its withering attacks on Komen and outpouring of funds for Planned Parenthood — reaffirmed its tremendous support for women's health and reproductive health services for poor women. While this controversy has a happy ending, the episode is also a warning to those continuing to lob conservative political attacks at Planned Parenthood: Women's rights to reproductive freedom and health are broadly popular and widely supported.

Komen had tried to keep quiet that it was dropping its financial support of Planned Parenthood, knowing there would be a public backlash. But nothing could have prepared the organization for the tsunami of outrage that followed once the public got a whiff of Komen's decision. Accusations flew in an onslaught of emails and social media postings that Komen was appeasing antiabortion groups and injecting right-wing politics into the foundation's public health mission. Fueling the fire, Komen's new senior vice president for public policy, Karen Handel, had run unsuccessfully for governor of Georgia with an anti-Planned Parenthood platform. In Washington, 26 U.S. senators — 25 Democrats plus independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont — signed a letter asking Komen to reconsider.

Even as Komen denies it, everything about the decision to end Planned Parenthood's $700,000 in grants for annual breast cancer prevention spoke to a conservative, antiabortion political agenda. Komen claims to care only about breast cancer prevention and a cure. But its decision would have cut off funding for a national network of Planned Parenthood clinics that used Komen's funds to provide nearly 170,000 clinical breast exams to vulnerable populations of women — particularly low-income, minority and those who live in rural areas. Without such life-saving health services, who knows how many women would go without early-detection screenings, compromising women's health across the country.

The official justification given by Komen was a new board policy that barred grants to any organization under federal or state investigation. It claimed that because Planned Parenthood's use of public money was being investigated by Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns of Ocala, it could no longer make grants to the group. But Sterns' congressional investigation into whether Planned Parenthood used government money to fund abortion services is little more than a political stage for conservative politicians and antiabortion rights groups to denounce an organization whose abortion services make up only 3 percent of its work.

In amending its policy, Komen seemed to admit that it had failed to take into account the ease with which politically charged investigations can be launched. Going forward, Komen explained, disqualifying investigations must be "criminal and conclusive in nature and not political." That is a more defensible position.

During the controversy, messages of support and financial contributions flooded into Planned Parenthood allowing it to raise nearly $3 million for its breast cancer program, including a $250,000 matching grant from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Komen claims it also received extra contributions, but the group undoubtedly heard from other donors who threatened to pull their support. The dispute shows how a groundswell of activism from a wide swath of people can undo a wrong. And it confirms that despite relentless political attacks, Americans broadly support Planned Parenthood and its mission.

Public outpouring reverses Komen's error 02/03/12 [Last modified: Friday, February 3, 2012 5:38pm]
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