NEW: "Nothing short of a shakedown," charges former Komen VP Karen Handel
The foundation reversed a decision last week to cut funding for Planned Parenthood
The initial decision prompted a backlash and pressure from lawmakers
A report says Handel was behind the funding decision
Karen Handel, a vice president with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation who resigned Tuesday after a controversy over funding for Planned Parenthood projects, blasted the organization and defended her role in the debate.
Komen’s founder and CEO, Nancy Brinker, said in a statement she had accepted Handel’s resignation and acknowledged, “we have made mistakes in how we handled recent decisions.”
Handel, the foundation’s senior vice president for policy, opposes abortion. She was the driving force behind the foundation’s decision not to renew parts of its longstanding partnership with Planned Parenthood, the Huffington Post reported earlier this week after reviewing internal e-mails at the foundation. Planned Parenthood operates hundreds of family clinics where abortions are performed.
When asked Tuesday what role her position on abortion may have played in the decision not to renew funding for Planned Parenthood projects, Handel responded: “Absolutely none.”
“I’m a professional. … My No. 1 priority is the fight against breast cancer, our mission and the women that we serve. The only place for politics in all of this came from Planned Parenthood – when they launched this vicious, vicious attack on a great organization and perpetrated what was nothing short of a shakedown to coerce a private entity to give them grants,” she told CNN affiliate WXIA in Atlanta.
“It’s abundantly clear that this was never about the fight against breast cancer for Planned Parenthood. What it was about, and remains about, is the fight to advance Planned Parenthood’s agenda and they sucked Komen in the middle of it and used them in all of this. And it’s a disgrace,” Handel said.
The Komen foundation later reversed its decision after being faced with a deluge of opposition that included pressure from lawmakers and internal dissent.
“Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s mission is the same today as it was the day of its founding: to find a cure and eradicate breast cancer,” Brinker said. “We owe no less to our partners, supporters and, above all, the millions of people who have been and continue to be impacted by this life-threatening disease.
“We have made mistakes in how we have handled recent decisions and take full accountability for what has resulted, but we cannot take our eye off the ball when it comes to our mission,” she said. “To do this effectively, we must learn from what we’ve done right, what we’ve done wrong and achieve our goal for the millions of women who rely on us. The stakes are simply too high and providing hope for a cure must drive our efforts.”
Handel had served in her position at Komen since April 2011, Brinker said. “I have known Karen for many years, and we both share a common commitment to our organization’s lifelong mission, which must always remain our sole focus. I wish her the best in future endeavors,” she said.
A statement from Leola Reis, Planned Parenthood’s vice president for external affairs, did not mention Handel, but said, “We are pleased and thankful that the Komen Foundation clarified their grant-making criteria allowing Planned Parenthood affiliates to continue to be eligible for funding of breast cancer screening programs.
“Planned Parenthood staff, board and volunteers have participated in Komen walks. We have always felt welcomed and appreciated as a valued colleague organization in the breast cancer fight.”
Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, was a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Georgia in 2010, losing to current Gov. Nathan Deal in a primary runoff.
“Let me be clear, since I am pro-life, I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood,” Handel wrote on her campaign website in 2010.
After Komen’s initial decision to cut off some funding, Planned Parenthood said money from the foundation has largely paid for breast exams at local centers. In the past five years, it said, grants from Komen have directly supported 170,000 screenings, making up about 4% of the exams performed at Planned Parenthood clinics nationwide.
The backlash from the decision was immediate. In Washington, 26 Senate Democrats signed a letter calling on Komen to reconsider. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a longtime Planned Parenthood supporter, pledged $250,000 in matching grants to help make up for the funding loss.
Bloomberg’s gift came on top of $400,000 that Planned Parenthood reported raising online from 6,000 donors in the first 24 hours after the initial announcement. By Friday, more than $3 million had been raised, in what Planned Parenthood CEO Barbara Zdravecky said was a “testament to America’s compassion and sincerity.”
CREDO, which describes itself as the largest corporate donor to Planned Parenthood, said last week that 250,000 of its members had signed a petition urging Komen to reverse its decision. CREDO also had pledged a $200,000 grant to replace the Komen funds for Planned Parenthood.
“The outpouring of support for the work Planned Parenthood does every day on the front lines has been inspiring,” Reis said in her statement Tuesday. “And now it’s time for us to move forward and continue to provide the prevention services that thousands rely upon every year. One of the best things about this story is that more women known they can rely on Planned Parenthood for cancer screenings.”
Several online petitions had called for Handel to be fired, including one from CREDO Action that the organization said Tuesday had some 50,000 signatures.
“Komen may have apologized, but they still need to clean house, starting with the person who drove this atrocious action,” the petition said “If Komen wishes to rehabilitate its devastated reputation and gain back trust, Handel needs to be fired.”
However, other people supported the Komen Foundation in its decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood. Posters on both sides of the issue contributed to a contentious debate on the foundation’s Facebook page.
“I will not contribute to you again,” one poster wrote after the announcement Tuesday. “So disappointed in your actions.”
Jody Schoger, author of the blog “Women with Cancer,” and herself a 57-year-old breast cancer survivor, said Tuesday Handel’s resignation is “good news. They’ve taken a step in the right direction.”
But there are more steps that need to be taken, she said. “It’s important for them to review their mission and get it back in touch with the people who helped build them, and that’s survivors and the women they serve. Somewhere, that got lost in big events and big sponsors.”
Last week’s funding dispute with Planned Parenthood was the tipping point for building frustration, said Schoger, who described herself as a former supporter of Komen who now gives to Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong.
On Sunday, the Huffington Post quoted an anonymous “Komen insider” as saying Handel was behind the decision, as well as an attempt to make it look nonpolitical.
The strategy, according to the online publication, involved drafting new guidelines preventing Komen from funding any organization under investigation by local, state or federal authorities. In September, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce began an investigation into Planned Parenthood over the organization’s “compliance with federal restrictions on funding abortions.”
“Karen Handel was the prime instigator of this effort, and she herself personally came up with investigation criteria,” the source told the Huffington Post. “She said, ‘If we just say it’s about investigations, we can defund Planned Parenthood and no one can blame us for being political.’”
CNN’s Tom Watkins, Ashley Hayes and Matt Smith contributed to this report.