What Really Happened at the Komen Foundation

The clean sweep at the Komen Foundation is finally complete. A few days ago Komen founder Nancy Brinker finally lost her job as CEO. It took a while but they finally got rid of her, the woman who watched her sister suffer and die from breast cancer, who dedicated her life to eradicating the disease, who created one of the most successful global health charities in the world. They removed her for the crime of trying to defund Planned Parenthood. She’s being replaced by a woman some say had a hand in developing Obamacare and who has never run a non-profit.

She was the last of the triumvirate who had the audacity to try and get Susan G. Komen for the Cure out of the culture wars around abortion.

The first to go was Karen Handel who was head of global marketing for Komen. She received the initial blame from the left. Though she voluntarily resigned, she was the fall guy. Handel subsequently wrote a very readable book about it and is now running for the U.S. Senate from Georgia. Second to go was Liz Thompson, who at the time two years ago was President of Komen.

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Since they are all gone completely or from day-to-day operations, it is time to tell some tales from the inside of that failed effort. I know quite a bit that has never been revealed until now. Top Komen people came to me in the summer of 2011 to ask my advice on how to step away from Planned Parenthood funding and how to communicate this, in fact how to orchestrate such a move with the pro-life movement.

They came to me because I know pretty much everyone in the pro-life movement, how many of them think, and how many would react to such a reality, that Komen would withdraw funding from the pro-life bête noir, Planned Parenthood.

For years pro-lifers pounded Komen for its support of Planned Parenthood. It made no sense to pro-lifers that Komen, a breast cancer charity, would fund an organization whose essential work in performing abortions that can increase the risk of this deadly disease. And it was an increasing frustration for the millions of pro-life Americans who “raced for the cure” but could not in good conscience continue. Campaigns against Komen by pro-lifers were running all over the country. When Komen President Liz Thompson first came to my office she said, “fully 50% of my time is spent in dealing with” pro-life boycotts of Komen fundraising.

Thompson was most concerned with how effective the boycotts had been from the Catholic bishops. Though the US Conference of Catholic Bishops Pro-Life Secretariat did not have the authority to tell individual bishops what to do about Komen funding but they did have a point of view, which they shared with anyone who called, and a lot of people and bishops were calling.

Handel and Thompson said repeatedly to me that they wanted out of the culture wars. They said they did not want to enter into the pro-life side but they wanted to become neutral and focus their time on saving women’s lives. I told them the pro-life world would not need Komen to join the pro-life ranks but that becoming neutral would be welcome and that the boycotts would almost certainly end.

At the time, Komen provided 19 grants to various Planned Parenthood branches, which over the years totaled into the millions of dollars. They believed their donations went to cancer screenings. Little did they know that Planned Parenthood had been lying to them and was only doing referrals since they did not do mammograms.

The pro-life complaint was not just about funding the abortion giant either. There were also claims Komen supported and funded embryo destructive research.

The chief concern we discussed in the beginning was how to communicate to the pro-life community that such a new policy had taken effect and then ensuring no pro-life group would take a victory lap. Our concern was not to draw the ire and wrath of the abortion giant. We were aware Planned Parenthood had attempted a national campaign against AT&T when that company defunded Planned Parenthood years before. How to avoid that?

The first thing we did was try to expand the circle of pro-lifers who would help with the tactics. We reached out to the Pro-Life Secretariat of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. They, however, were very suspicious and declined the meeting. In fact, within days of my initial conversation about meeting with Komen, word was circulating in Ohio that the Komen-Planned Parenthood problem was about to be solved, the implication being that the bishops would give their approval to Komen funding even if Komen still supported Planned Parenthood. Clearly, there had been a leak from within Komen. This confirmed the suspicions of the USCCB that Komen was simply using them for cover.

In order to avoid future leaks, Thompson and Handel decided to narrow the group of Komen insiders allowed into their internal conversation.

To get advice on how to communicate the new policy—without victory dances—at the suggestion of the USCCB bioethics expert Richard Doerflinger, we contacted Doug Scott of Life Decisions International, who keeps track of companies that contribute to Planned Parenthood. He runs a famous Planned Parenthood boycott list. Doerflinger also suggested we talk to Greg Schleppenbach of the Nebraska Catholic Conference who keeps a similar list on those who fund embryo-destructive research.

Scott assured us that all he needed to do was take Komen off his banned list when the time was right.  Pro-life groups that followed such things would immediately notice the change. He said his group would initiate no public victory parties though he could not speak for any other group.

Schleppenbach told us the case against Komen for embryo-destructive research was quite weak at best.

We began to make discrete phone calls to groups who were in the lead in going after Komen, chief among them Rachel Bohannon of Right to Life-Texas. Since Komen was headquartered in Texas, Bohannon and her colleagues had taken a long time special interest in Komen and Planned Parenthood. Bohannon was thrilled such a change was coming and assured us that Texas Right to Life would not celebrate but would simply move on. Other groups we contacted agreed that our side would simply move on and not wave the red flag in the face of Planned Parenthood.

Within Komen discussions were ongoing on how to make the final decision and how to implement it. I strongly advised Thompson and Handel that the withdrawal should happen slowly, even over the course of a few years and that eventually the final grant would be withdrawn. I was not then aware of the trickiness of Komen funding decisions. They were not made at headquarters but at the local level. Further muddying the waters was the fact that most Komen affiliates were separately incorporated charities with boards that were independent of Komen. Headquarters issued funding guidelines but not final funding decisions. This proved to be fatal in the coming months.

The issue was embryo destructive research was fairly easy to deal with. Komen did not fund it, period. However, one of their top officials had said they approve of it in a Komen newsletter. A bishop in Ohio had a list of all possibly offending grants which was examined by Professor Robert George of Princeton, who is an expert on bioethics having served on the Presidential Commission on Bioethics for many years, and Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who is a noted bioethics expert himself. They determined that none of the Komen grants shown to them had anything to do with the destruction of embryos.

We decided to hold a private conference at Princeton for bioethics experts and Komen scientists in order to discuss the matter and eventually issue a Komen policy statement. This never came to fruition though a crystal clear policy statement, edited by George and Levin, did appear on the Komen website that fall, though no pro-life groups noticed.

Summer turned to fall turned to winter and the Komen people were eager to get the decision finalized, perhaps too eager. Nancy Brinker ended up announcing to the Komen board that funding criteria had been changed and that “pass through” grants, grants given to one group that passes them along to another to carry out, would no longer be allowed. Since Planned Parenthood did not do mammograms, their grants for breast exams were all passed through to local clinics. Komen also invoked long-standing but little-used guidelines not allowing grants to any group under investigation by any body of government. This was probably the fatal move.  She specifically mentioned Planned Parenthood would no longer be eligible for grants.

Nancy Brinker’s hubris got the better of her. She had been thought for so long to be a secular saint, even and especially among the feminist crowd, that she could schmooze her way through any crisis. She spoke to the head of Planned Parenthood and said they had a “gentle-ladies” agreement not to go after each other; the two groups would simply part as friends.

Things were not helped when Doug Scott announced the new policy well in advance of when we wanted it and therefore was not content to simply take them off the boycott list. Though he did that eventually, he also issued a press release. This caused huge problems for those within Komen, and in the pro-life world, who thought games were being played.

What we did not know at the time was that Planned Parenthood at that moment was planning a massive attack against their long-time friends at Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The board meeting and private announcement to Planned Parenthood came in December and all was quiet, or so we thought, for many weeks.

On January 31, 2012, Handel and I were meeting with the Pro-Life Secretariat of the USCCB to map out ideas on how to tell the rest of the pro-life world that funding had been pulled.  Deirdre McQuaid, head of communications for the Secretariat, said she had fielded a phone call from an Associated Press reporter about Komen withdrawing Planned Parenthood funding. Handel said she had, too. An immediate pall settled over the meeting. This could mean only one thing; Planned Parenthood had leaked the story and something was about to happen.

What happened over the next 72 hours is well known. The AP story could not have been worse for Komen. The Komen spokesman had been directed to talk specifically and only about “pass through grants.” Instead she talked about the investigations against Planned Parenthood. This placed the issue directly into the camp of House Republicans. Even though many investigations were going on, including for criminal wrongdoing at the local and state level, the spokesman made it about nasty “anti-choice” Republicans going after women’s health in the House of Representatives. This became the opening salvo in the “war against women” narrative. So egregious was this mistake by Komen spokesman Leslie Aun that in her book Handel suggests Aun may have been working for Planned Parenthood all along.

Within hours, letters from House Democrats were released. Female Congressmen were all over television attacking Komen as doing the bidding of anti-woman and  “anti-choice” Republican bullies. Big Komen donors announced they were pulling out. Big Komen donors, like Lance Armstrong, announced massive grants to Planned Parenthood. Komen executives announced their resignations. Corporations announced they were stepping back. Large Komen affiliates announced they were considering leaving Komen and setting up independently. Recall they were set up as independent charities and could do exactly that.

We were supposed to believe all of this happened over night after the AP story appeared on Wednesday, February 1. In fact, the take-down of Komen was weeks in the making.

A narrative developed over those few days that Planned Parenthood beat Komen through a masterful use of the new media. It is true Planned Parenthood trolls controlled the comment boxes of Komen’s Facebook page. But reports that Planned Parenthood was winning the email battle were simply false. This may have been true for the first 24 hours but then the pro-life world became energized. By Thursday morning, mostly through the use of my organizations email list of 390,000 and the lists of other pro-life groups, more than 50,000 emails flooded their offices in favor of Komen. We were beating Planned Parenthood 20-1 in emails. This was not reported anywhere and certainly not by Komen which suffered from a lack of emergency communications personnel and internal Komen personnel who favored Planned Parenthood. In the end this was not a new media takedown but an old media assault with the complicit support of old media dinosaurs like Andrea Mitchell and Sally Quinn, and new TV wolves like Rachel Maddow.

Over those few days the handful of Komen insiders were hunkered down in a glass-walled room at Komen’s DC headquarters. Someone present in the glass room told me he had many times participated in real national security crises in the White House, but that he had never experienced anything like the unrelenting attack on the people in that little room over those few days. Each minute brought new aspects to the crisis, new attacks. It was simply nonstop.

At one point I organized an effort by pro-lifer leaders to get Nancy Brinker to keep her resolve.  On Friday morning, dozens of bouquets of flowers arrived one by one into that glassed-in room, including one massive bouquet of four-dozen long-stemmed red roses. Each carried notes of encouragement and prayers. Brinker read each of them one-by-one. What we did not know at the time was that Brinker and her colleagues had already decided to reverse themselves and resume funding to Planned Parenthood.

Karen Handel believes Komen could have survived if they had just hung on for more than those three days in February 2012. Maybe so. But Komen ended up caving to Planned Parenthood. Abortion advocates still despise Komen. Pro-lifers, quite properly are back to boycotting Komen. Komen has lost personnel, lost funding, and they just cancelled one of their signature annual fundraising race/walk in Washington DC.

What this whole mess shows abundantly is that the pro-choice wing of the Democratic Party cares more about abortion than saving women’s lives. The Komen grants of a few million dollars were a tiny drop in Planned Parenthood’s billion dollar bucket and the amount was immediately replaced by other donors. What this whole thing shows is what most of us have believed all along. In some profoundly strange way, to some abortion is a sacrament and all heretics to that orthodoxy are to be burned at the stake. Abortion über alles.


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