It is a story of relentlessly unforced errors, also of profound naiveté bordering on at least misdemeanor incompetence. It is also the story of a masterful, even breathtaking, political takedown.
On one side was the much loved Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a foundation that in 30 years became the world’s largest funder of breast cancer research, founded by the striking Texan Nancy Brinker, a woman of the center right who nonetheless practically walked on water for liberals.
On the other side stood the highly controversial group Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the country run by the equally striking Texan Cecile Richards, longtime darling of the farther left.
It is clear that Brinker never really had a chance against Richards. They were playing entirely different games and they ran organizations set up for entirely different purposes. One is a charity set up for cancer research, the other is a political operation well practiced in smash-face politics.
Karen Handel, until recently Senior Vice President for Public Policy for Susan G. Komen, tells this story in Planned Bullyhood: The Truth Behind the Headlines about the Planned Parenthood Funding Battle with Susan G. Komen for the Cure just out from Howard Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster.
Over the years Susan G. Komen for the Cure had become a target of protest by pro-life groups and increasingly the Catholic bishops, who objected to Komen giving millions to Planned Parenthood. The campaign had taken its toll. Komen president Liz Thompson told me last summer she spent 50 percent of her time dealing with the boycott and she wanted “out of the culture wars.”
Komen also faced what they feared was a plateau in fundraising, and therefore they determined their grants had to become more effective in either breast cancer detection or in research for a cure.
They specifically targeted “awareness” campaigns and “pass-through” grants where the recipient did not do the actual work but passed it along to a third party. Most of the nineteen Planned Parenthood grants fell within one of these categories, described by Liz Thompson as “crappy.”
Komen officials grappled with how to uncouple from Planned Parenthood without a war. When AT&T defunded Planned Parenthood in 1990, the group went on the attack, even taking out ads in the New York Times. As Handel makes clear in the book, the federally funded nonprofit Planned Parenthood has truckloads of cash for advocacy and for attacking foes and even former friends.
Had Komen stuck to the rationale of the quality of grants, they may have survived the maelstrom that would be unleashed upon them. But here, Komen made perhaps a fatal error. In her book, Handel says they discovered an already existing policy that Komen could not give to organizations under investigation, and Planned Parenthood was under investigation at all levels of government, including by the Republicans in the U.S. House. Planned Parenthood partisans within Komen claim this was purely Handel’s invention. Against Brinker and Handel’s wishes, in the press this became the lead rationale for Komen’s defunding Planned Parenthood. It then became the hammer Planned Parenthood turned so deftly on Komen since they could say the investigations were all political.
Nancy Brinker thought she could gain a “gentle ladies agreement” with her old friend Cecile Richards and that Richards would not go nuclear. Six weeks later she discovered how wrong she was.
The Associated Press ran a story on January 31 and then came the deluge. Within three days Komen faced the real possibility that they would lose everything. Affiliates threatened to withdraw from the organization. Corporate donors threatened to leave. Massive pressure was brought to bear from Congress. Brinker’s friend Andrea Mitchell beat her up on national television. The American Association of University Women said they would no longer allow their students to work with Komen.
Less than seventy-two hours later Komen caved and announced that Planned Parenthood would continue receiving Komen funds. From Tuesday to Friday, Komen hardly knew what hit them. James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal said it best, calling it “analogous to a protection racket: Nice charity you’ve got there. It’d be a shame if anything happened to it.”
Handel believes the hit on Komen can only be seen in the context of the nascent “war on women.” At the time the Obama administration was embroiled with the Catholic bishops over the contraceptive mandate. And this was just another instance of Republicans—Brinker and Handel—selling out women’s rights.
Handel does not explicitly say who’s to blame, but the book clearly points to Nancy Brinker’s timidity and her fear of criticism from cultural elites, as well as Liz Thompson who was in “over her head.” But one tantalizing speculation in the book is that within Komen was a fifth column sympathetic to Planned Parenthood.
The woman hired by Komen to “handle” the left was Obama consigliore Hilary Rosen, who was also close to Cecile Richards and who was in business with former White House Communications Director Anita Dunn. Brendan Daly, an outside Komen adviser, once worked with Richards in Nancy Pelosi’s office. Handel believes there were leaks to Planned Parenthood from inside Komen all along.
Handel shows that Rosen was sympathetic to Planned Parenthood. On the day Komen caved, Rosen retweeted Nancy Pelosi’s gloating comments about Komen’s defeat. Rosen tweeted this herself: “Congrats to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. . . No room for politics in fighting cancer.”
Within a few days Handel was forced out. She was an easy target, a pro-life Republican from Georgia. She was demonized as the person who drove the Komen bus off a cliff.
Seven months later and they are still carting bodies out of the wreckage. Liz Thompson stepped down a few weeks ago and Komen founder Nancy Brinker resigned as CEO.
Only a case study in the Harvard Business School or novel by Danielle Steele could properly tell this story. But the lessons are fairly obvious. Never get into bed with Planned Parenthood, and if you’re in bed with them now, don’t even think about getting out.
Austin Ruse is president of C-FAM, a New York and Washington DC-based research institute focusing on international legal and social policy.
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