Women in the World

02.10.12

Komen Official Karen Handel Calls Planned Parenthood a ‘Gigantic Bully’

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Karen Handel says Planned Parenthood broke a secret pact with Komen and launched an ‘Armageddon.’ She calls the organization ‘a gigantic bully, using Komen as its own personal punching bag.’ By Abigail Pesta.

Did Planned Parenthood cut a secret deal to keep silent about losing funding from the cancer-fighting Susan G. Komen foundation—and then break the deal?

That is precisely what Karen Handel alleges. Handel, a senior Komen executive, resigned this week amid a scandal over the charity’s controversial decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood.

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Abigail Pesta reacts to the 'Armageddon' of comments on her story.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Handel said Komen and Planned Parenthood in December had come to an understanding—a “ladies’ agreement,” as Handel described it—not to discuss the fact that Komen had decided to cut its financial support. In the past two weeks, the Komen foundation—best known for its hugely popular pink-ribbon campaigns to fight breast cancer—has been embroiled in a politically tinged crisis, with critics claiming the decision suggested a lack of support for abortion rights. In response, Komen reversed its decision.

On Tuesday, Handel, the senior vice president for policy at Komen, resigned, acknowledging her role in the matter, but standing by the original decision to cut funding.

“The idea that anyone would suggest Komen had a political agenda is absurd,” Handel told The Daily Beast. “Komen is a breast-cancer organization—that’s what it does.” Instead, she accused Planned Parenthood of making the matter political, saying the group had “unleashed Armageddon” by launching a social-media firestorm. “Planned Parenthood is a gigantic bully, using Komen as its own personal punching bag,” she said.

A Planned Parenthood spokeswoman denied that Planned Parenthood orchestrated a social-media campaign.

In explaining the decision-making process at Komen, Handel said, “It’s no secret that for some years—long before my time—Komen was dealing with a controversy regarding Planned Parenthood grants. The issue would flare up, then die down, then flare up again. It was fairly cyclical. But over the summer, it intensified. More donors said they were pulling out. The issue was ratcheting up. It wasn’t dying down.

“Two dozen Catholic bishops were saying not to support Komen,” she continued. “We needed to find some options for moving to neutral ground. I was tasked with doing that.” She added, “An inordinate amount of staff time was spent trying to manage the controversy. We should be able to focus on our own mission and not be distracted by the controversy of another organization.”

The decision to cut funding was vetted by the board, she said, and it was in line with Komen regulations not to fund organizations that have been barred from receiving government funding. Planned Parenthood has been barred from receiving funding in some states, she said.

Planned Parenthood said the situation is more complicated than that. “No Planned Parenthood affiliate, nor the national organization, has been barred from receiving any government funding for any wrongdoing of any sort,” the spokeswoman said. “Government entities impose eligibility restrictions for various funding streams. Planned Parenthood affiliates, just like any other entity, either choose to meet those requirements and seek the funding, or choose not to do so.”

This past December, the president of Komen, Liz Thompson, met with the president of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards, to discuss the decision, according to Handel. “There was an open and candid conversation about the controversy and the effect on Komen. There was a gentle ladies’ agreement, if you will, that no one was going to go to the press about this,” Handel said. In the agreement, she said, Komen offered to continue funding current grants, but not future ones.

“Planned Parenthood is a gigantic bully, using Komen as its own personal punching bag.”

“We wanted a smooth transition,” she continued. “What happened is nothing short of a disgrace. Cecile Richards put this issue in the press. There was a coordinated effort to get sites like moveon.org and change.org involved. There was an orchestrated, premeditated attempt to put this issue in the press. Talk about betrayal by Planned Parenthood—against an organization that took up for it for years.”

The Planned Parenthood spokeswoman said the news was first reported by “anti-choice outlets.” After that, she said, Komen announced the decision to hundreds of Planned Parenthood and Komen leaders, sparking media interest.

Handel sees it differently. “Planned Parenthood launched a vicious attack on a nonprofit organization that fights breast cancer,” she said. “Komen gave out $93 million in community grants last year. Planned Parenthood got $680,000—less than 1 percent of the total granting portfolio. They unleashed Armageddon on an organization for $680,000.”

The Planned Parenthood spokeswoman said the money can save lives. She added, “Our focus has always been on the patients who rely on us for lifesaving cancer-prevention services. We are grateful that the Susan G. Komen foundation has reconsidered their recent policy changes.”

Handel noted that Komen received a fair amount of support for its decision to cut funding, with “emails into Komen running 3 to 1 in support.” She added, “Within two days of the news, online donations were up 400 percent. It wasn’t like there wasn’t support for this. It was just being drowned out by Planned Parenthood. Komen doesn’t have the strength in the area of social media.”

Handel, who ran for governor of Georgia in 2010 on an anti-abortion platform, denied that her political views played a role at Komen. She laughed when she heard that a blog had called her a “martyr for the pro-life cause.” She said, “There’s a great deal of irony in that when I ran for governor, I was not pro-life enough.” Her plan now, she said, “is going for some runs.”