Feb 8, 2012

A top official at Susan G. Komen for the Cure resigned today because of the controversy over funding mammograms at Planned Parenthood.

In her resignation letter, Karen Handel, senior vice president for public policy at Komen, the country's largest breast cancer charity, acknowledged that she was closely involved in the decision to stop funding breast health services at Planned Parenthood, which received $680,000 in Komen funds last year. That decision, made public last week, provoked an immediate public backlash against Komen. Thousands of people protested the move on Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites. Komen reversed the decision Friday, apologizing to the public and announcing that Planned Parenthood would be eligible for future grants.

In her resignation letter, Handel declined to take a severance package and said she was "deeply disappointed by the gross mischaracterizations of the strategy, its rationale and my involvement in it."

Initially, Komen officials said they cut Planned Parenthood's funding because of a new policy blocking grants to any organization under investigation, citing a probe of Planned Parenthood by a Florida congressman who wanted to see whether the group was using federal dollars for abortions. A few days later, Komen leaders said the reason Planned Parenthood lost funding was because it didn't provide mammograms directly, but instead referred women to outside radiology centers.

Handel says Komen was trying to distance itself from a controversial group. Komen had worked with Planned Parenthood for 20 years, the group's founder, Nancy Brinker, said last week. In the past, Komen defended its relationship with Planned Parenthood, noting that the group is the only source of women's health care in some communities.

"The controversy related to Planned Parenthood has long been a concern to the organization," Handel says. "Neither the decision nor the changes themselves were based on anyone's political beliefs or ideology. Rather, both were based on Komen's mission and how to better serve women, as well as a realization of the need to distance Komen from controversy."

By Tuesday afternoon, Handel's name had been deleted from its list of leadership on its website. Brinker said her organization is trying to move on.

"We have made mistakes in how we have handled recent decisions and take full accountability for what has resulted, but we cannot take our eye off the ball when it comes to our mission," Brinker said in a statement. "To do this effectively, we must learn from what we've done right, what we've done wrong and achieve our goal for the millions of women who rely on us. The stakes are simply too high, and providing hope for a cure must drive our efforts."

Handel had been singled out in several media reports as a key player in the decision to defund Planned Parenthood. Before arriving at Komen last year, Handel had served as Georgia's secretary of State and had run for governor in 2010 as an anti-abortion Republican who vowed to take state money away from Planned Parenthood if elected. She was backed by Sarah Palin but lost in the primary.

Steven Aden, senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund, said he was saddened by Handel's departure, noting that Handel's public service to women "has become another victim of Planned Parenthood's mafia-style shakedown of the Susan G. Komen organization." The fund is an alliance of Christian attorneys that released a report Tuesday in which it alleges that Planned Parenthood has wasted taxpayer dollars.

Given the enormous public outcry, and potential damage to its brand and future fundraising, some say Komen had no choice but to restore ties to Planned Parenthood — and sever them with Handel.

"Komen needs to do everything they can for damage control," says Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a professor of marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco who has written about Komen's use of "cause marketing." She notes that people buy products with pink ribbons because it make them feel good to help women with cancer. Komen needs to work hard to rekindle that warm feeling and erase any negative associations with its brand, she says.

"There has always been a sense that Komen is a little too corporate, a little more plastic than the other charities," Strahilevitz says. "They will need to increase and really talk about their efforts to serve underserved women."



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