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Karen Handel, Susan G. Komen's Anti-Abortion VP, Drove Decision To Defund Planned Parenthood

Karen Handel Komen

First Posted: 02/ 5/2012 4:22 pm Updated: 02/ 6/2012 12:11 pm

WASHINGTON -- Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the nation's leading anti-breast-cancer charity, has insisted that its since-reversed decision to pull funding from Planned Parenthood arose from a routine change in criteria for grant eligibility that had nothing to do with abortion politics.

But a Komen insider told HuffPost on Sunday that Karen Handel, Komen's staunchly anti-abortion vice president for public policy, was the main force behind the decision to defund Planned Parenthood and the attempt to make that decision look nonpolitical.

"Karen Handel was the prime instigator of this effort, and she herself personally came up with investigation criteria," the source, who requested anonymity for professional reasons, told HuffPost. "She said, 'If we just say it's about investigations, we can defund Planned Parenthood and no one can blame us for being political.'"

Emails between Komen leadership on the day the Planned Parenthood decision was announced, which were reviewed by HuffPost under the condition they not be published, confirm the source's description of Handel's sole "authority" in crafting and implementing the Planned Parenthood policy.

Handel's strategy to cut off Planned Parenthood involved drafting new guidelines that would prevent Komen from funding any organization that was under investigation by local, state or federal authorities. Since Planned Parenthood is currently the target of a congressional inquiry prompted by House Republicans into the way it uses government funds, the family planning provider would have been immediately disqualified from receiving new Komen grants.

After the initial uproar when news of the decision broke, the story that Komen told the public was that the cut-off was unrelated to a political agenda against Planned Parenthood.

"While it is regrettable when changes in priorities and policies affect any of our grantees, such as a long-standing partner like Planned Parenthood, we must continue to evolve to best meet the needs of the women we serve and most fully advance our mission," the charity said in a statement this past Tuesday.

Americans United for Life and other pro-life groups have been pressuring Komen for years to cut ties with Planned Parenthood because some of its clinics offer abortions, even though none of Komen's money was used toward abortion services. Handel's internal strategy, the Komen source told HuffPost, was to exaggerate those attacks and use them to convince the leadership that funding Planned Parenthood was a political liability.

"Komen's been dealing with the Planned Parenthood issue for years, and you know, some right-wing groups would organize a protest or send out a mailing every now and then, but it was on a low simmer," the source said. "What Karen's been doing for the past six months is ratcheting up the issue with leadership. Every time someone would even mention a protest, she would magnify it, pump it up, exaggerate it. She's the one that kept driving this issue."

Handel and Komen President Elizabeth Thompson didn't respond to requests for comment.

The source said Handel submitted a final version of the new grant criteria to Komen leadership in November, and the board approved it in December, at which point Komen's top public health official, Mollie Williams, resigned "on the spot."

"It was apparent to everyone in the organization that Karen was doing everything in her power to defund Planned Parenthood," the source said, "and that's why Mollie Williams quit."

Williams has previously declined to comment on why she left, but she told National Journal that she respects the work of Planned Parenthood.

But the criteria did gain the support of Komen's top executives and board. And in an interview with HuffPost, board member John D. Rafaelli, a Democratic lobbyist and a supporter of Planned Parenthood's mission, took responsibility for the changes. As the only lobbyist on the board, he said, he should have anticipated the political fallout.

"Honestly, I didn't think it through well enough," Rafaelli said. "We don't want to be pro-choice or pro-life; we want to be pro-cure. We screwed up, I'm saying it. We failed to keep abortion out of this, and we owe the people in the middle who only care about breast cancer and who have raised money for us an apology."

The backlash against Komen was intense, including threats of violence, angry letters from members of Congress and public rebukes from political figures such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The charity struggled to deal with the pressure, especially in a face-off against Planned Parenthood, an organization whose fine-tuned political team has experience in these high-pitched, high-stakes debates.

It was speculated that Komen founder Nancy Brinker hired her friend Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush, to help her handle the crisis. But Fleischer told HuffPost that he had no part in guiding Komen's strategy on this issue except to recommend an outside crisis management firm.

"It's just sad for everybody concerned," he said on Friday. "Komen is a great group, but politically speaking, they're no match for Planned Parenthood."

The Komen insider agreed with Fleischer's assessment.

"Komen's not equipped to spend its days fighting political battles," the source said. "Abortion is not our issue, and I think [leadership] tried to finesse a way out of it, and this investigation criteria was the solution. And it blew up in their faces. They were just naive in the face of [the] incredibly sophisticated Planned Parenthood operation."

Stunned by the fallout, Komen leadership decided within three days to reverse the Planned Parenthood decision and apologize. But the Komen insider said Handel was furious about the cave and fought against it up until the point that it was announced Friday morning.

"It became clear Thursday night that something had to give," the source said. "Nancy Brinker, Liz Thompson, the board, and leadership were saying, 'We're really worried about Komen's mission if we don't figure this out.' But Karen was still arguing against it as of Friday morning -- she was horrified that we were caving, she said. She's politically tone-deaf."

In light of the political damage and the abrupt reversal of the Planned Parenthood funding decision, pressure has mounted inside Komen for Handel to resign.

"Everybody in the organization wishes she would do the right thing," the Komen insider said.

So far, Handel hasn't indicated an intention to step down. Nor does it appear that she's been formally asked to do so. But as a result of her efforts, Komen has been left reeling and its reputation as a top charity endangered.

"We're under attack. We're getting threats of violence," the source said. "It's devastating."

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