NEW YORK – Criticizing major players on both sides, former Susan G. Komen for the Cure vice president Karen Handel has written a blistering insider’s account of the prominent cancer charity’s decision to halt grants to Planned Parenthood and its swift retreat in the face of an intense, widespread backlash.
Titled “Planned Bullyhood” and due for publication on Sept. 11, the book depicts Planned Parenthood as an aggressive, partisan organization that was willing to weaken Komen to further a liberal political agenda. However, Handel – a conservative who resigned from Komen after its reversal – also assails Komen’s leadership as indecisive, timid and politically naive, and says the hasty decision to backtrack was “a terrible mistake.”
Handel was hired by Komen as vice president for public policy in April 2011 after losing a Republican gubernatorial primary in Georgia, and was given the task of figuring out how to disengage Komen from Planned Parenthood.
The grants from Komen were for breast-cancer education and screening, but the charity was under increasing pressure from groups that oppose abortion rights and religious conservatives to cut all ties with Planned Parenthood because, in addition to its other services, it is the nation’s leading provider of abortion.
Late in 2011, Komen made a final decision to halt the grants, which totaled $680,000 that year, and its president, Liz Thompson, informed Planned Parenthood’s president, Cecile Richards, of the decision in mid-December. However, the rift did not become public knowledge until Jan. 31, when The Associated Press broke the news.
Reaction was immediate and passionate. Twitter and Facebook were flooded with denunciations of Komen’s action. Democratic members of Congress urged Komen to reconsider, as did some of Komen’s own affiliates. Planned Parenthood accused Komen of bowing to right-wing bullying and eagerly mobilized its supporters, raising $3 million in donations within days of the news report.
Handel says she urged Thompson and Komen’s CEO and founder, Nancy Brinker, to hold firm and ride out the firestorm, but instead Komen announced on Feb. 3 – just three days after the initial disclosure – that it was shifting gears and restoring Planned Parenthood’s eligibility for grants.
Handel, who resigned the next week, was distraught – and she perceived herself being made the scapegoat for a public-relations fiasco.
“I was upset with myself for not better anticipating how Planned Parenthood would attack. I was angry at what I believed was betrayal by my Komen teammates and our own consultants. And I was deeply disappointed that Nancy had not had the courage to stand up for Komen and what she knew was the best decision for the organization,” Handel writes.
In Handel’s view, Brinker was a strong-willed leader, but also “very vulnerable to criticism, especially in the press.” Liz Thompson, according to Handel, was knowledgeable about breast cancer, but “sometimes seemed a bit out of her depth” as Komen president.
“At times Liz seemed unsure, unwilling to make the tough calls, and easily backed off a position,” Handel writes.
Komen announced Aug. 9 that Thompson was leaving the organization and that Brinker would relinquish her role as CEO.
Komen spokeswoman Andrea Rader said she could not comment on Handel’s book before its release, but defended the two women who led the charity during the controversy.
“The record is well-known: Nancy Brinker and Susan G. Komen for the Cure have done more for women facing breast cancer than any other individual or organization,” Rader wrote in an email. “Liz Thompson is one of the most highly respected leaders in women’s health in the nation, if not the world.”
A Planned Parenthood spokesman, Eric Ferrero, also said he couldn’t yet respond to specifics in the book, but added in an email, “It is incredible that there are people who still want to inject politics into breast cancer detection and treatment.”
“Thanks to the outpouring of support we received during the Komen funding situation we’ve been able to expand our breast health work nationwide,” he wrote. “We’re proud to continue partnering with Komen and to expand our work with new partners...”
Komen was founded by Brinker in 1982 in memory of her sister, who died of breast cancer, and it grew to be the nation’s largest-breast cancer charity, investing roughly $2 billion in health services and advocacy, and sponsoring the popular Race for the Cure fundraising events.
Yet despite its mainstream popularity, Komen was a target of groups that oppose abortion because of partnerships with Planned Parenthood. The pressure escalated last year, with Roman Catholic bishops criticizing Komen for maintaining those ties and the publishing division of the Southern Baptist Convention recalling pink Bibles it had sold because some of the money generated for Komen was being routed to Planned Parenthood.
Handel says a break with Planned Parenthood had been pondered by Komen’s leaders long before she was hired, but the move became more definite during the latter half of 2011 and was approved by Komen’s board of directors in November. There was no objection from board members, but some Komen affiliates expressed dismay during a conference call in December, according to Handel.
Handel says Komen’s leaders – during December and January – were hopeful that Planned Parenthood would agree to an amicable split, and not go public with any angry reaction. However, Handel writes that she became worried about possible leaks to Planned Parenthood from Komen employees or consultants, and says she began to sense that things would end badly for Komen.
“Planned Parenthood would play the victim, accusing Komen of being bullies and succumbing to political pressure,” she writes. “I felt in my heart of hearts that Komen would not have the fortitude to see this through ... and somehow knew that I would be the scapegoat.”
A major complication, according to Handel’s book, was that Komen’s leaders struggled to pinpoint how they would publicly justify halting the grants to Planned Parenthood.
On one hand, the cancer charity sought to develop new criteria that would disqualify the Planned Parenthood grants on the grounds they were not cost-effective. Handel also determined that the grants could be suspended on grounds that Planned Parenthood was under investigation at the state and federal level, notably a probe launched by a conservative Republican congressman at the urging of anti-abortion groups.
During the three days after the grant cutoff was reported, Komen was inconsistent in efforts to explain its move – citing the investigation angle initially, the granting criteria at later points, and, in Handel’s view, damaging itself with changing messages.
Another key point in that tumultuous week came on Feb. 2, when Brinker granted an interview to Andrea Mitchell of NBC News.
Handel says a session held that morning to prepare Brinker was “complete pandemonium,” and the Komen CEO headed to the interview “dazed and unsure.”
The result, writes Handel, was a “fiasco” – highlighted by aggressive questioning from Mitchell, who asked why Komen would have hired Handel given her disapproval of Planned Parenthood.
Brinker replied, “Karen did not have anything to do with this decision” – and Handel writes that she immediately thought, “Oh no. That was not true. I was part of the decision-making process.”
Once the controversy spilled into the public arena, Handel says Komen was “outgunned and overwhelmed” by Planned Parenthood and its Democratic allies, who depicted the grant decision as part of a conservative “war on women.”
In an interview, Handel said she had no specific professional plans at this stage, having been busy with her book for the past few months. She said she wished Komen well, and expressed hope that her book would provide useful ammunition for critics of Planned Parenthood.
The book is being published by Howard Books, a division of Simon and Schuster with a focus on evangelical Christian themes.