Handel resigns from Komen; cites ‘vicious attack' from Planned Parenthood

Former Susan G. Komen V.P. Karen Handel is interviewed by members of the news media discussing her decision to resign following funding issues over Planned Parenthood in Atlanta on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012.

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Former Susan G. Komen V.P. Karen Handel is interviewed by members of the news media discussing her decision to resign following funding issues over Planned Parenthood in Atlanta on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Karen Handel accused the Planned Parenthood Federation of America Tuesday of plotting for a month before launching an orchestrated "shakedown" of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Handel, who resigned Tuesday as Komen's vice president of public policy, said Planned Parenthood was informed in December that Komen had revised its grant-making policies, making Planned Parenthood ineligible for future grants. She said Komen was "blind-sided" last week when the media suddenly got hold of the story, precipitating a public relations debacle that, she said, Komen was ill-equipped to handle.

"Planned Parenthood unleashed a premeditated and vicious attack not only on Komen, but also on Ambassador [Nancy] Brinker as well," said Handel, who in 2010 narrowly lost her bid for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. "The orchestrated assault did not happen overnight. It was long in the making."

Planned Parenthood rejected Handel's accusations.

"In response to media interest our goal has been not only transparency about this situation, but more importantly, to ensure that those women who are the real victims of the conservative pressure campaign receive the public support and information they need to stay safe and healthy," Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Andrea Hagelgans said in an email Tuesday.

Hagelgans said that, since December, Planned Parenthood had requested a meeting with Komen officials to discuss the policy change, but Komen officials did not comply.

Handel's first public statements came a week after the breast cancer organization acknowledged and then reversed its decision to pull future funding from Planned Parenthood. Komen denied throughout that pressure from abortion foes drove its action, saying it had merely adopted a policy barring organizations under local, state or federal investigation from applying for grants.

Florida Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns is investigating whether Planned Parenthood violated law by using federal funds for abortion services.

Of the $93 million Komen distributed last year, Planned Parenthood received $680,000 to perform breast examinations and breast health education at 19 of its centers. None of Georgia's Planned Parenthood centers received any of the funds.

By the end of last week, Komen had outraged many on both sides of the abortion debate. From the outset, attention focused on Handel, who joined Komen in 2011. Many reports noted that in 2010, while campaigning for governor on an anti-abortion platform, she had specifically declared herself an opponent of Planned Parenthood. (Handel was also criticized during that time by the Georgia Right to Life on charges she was soft on abortion rights, of which Handel said Tuesday: "The irony of this does not escape me.")

But Handel denied that her personal politics played a role in Komen's funding decision. "I’m a professional," she said, "and when I came to Komen, my No. 1 priority was the fight against breast cancer, our mission, and the women that we serve."

While she participated in revising Komen's policy, she said, she did not instigate the change and was hired to shepherd the organization to "neutral ground" with respect to the abortion issue.

"The decision to update our granting model was made before I joined Komen, and the controversy related to Planned Parenthood has long been a concern to the organization," Handel wrote in her resignation letter to Brinker, Komen's founder and CEO.

Handel said she resigned because the focus on her had become a distraction from Komen's mission.

Asked if denying $680,000 to Planned Parenthood was worth the fallout for Komen, she demurred.

“I don’t think you can place a value around all of that,” she said. “Komen was looking out for the best interest of the women it served.”

As for her future, Handel laughed when asked if she'd consider a return to politics.

As she considers her next steps, Komen is taking steps designed to repair its image. The organization issued a statement from Brinker Tuesday in which she acknowledged Handel's resignation as well as some public relations missteps.

"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," the statement 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."

But for some, it may be too late.

"Karen Handel's resignation is a big step in the right direction for Komen, though I do believe that their brand as a whole is tarnished beyond repair," said Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy, of Atlanta, in an email.

Richard Babcock, of Roswell, said his hope is that Komen will ultimately end its relationship with Planned Parenthood.

"I hope [Komen] continues its good work and hope that they reconsider contributions to [Planned Parenthood]," he said in an email. "I guess we're all beginning to realize the political power of Planned Parenthood ... Karen Handel certainly has."

But Susan Roe, of Atlanta, found at least one upside to the controversy: "It has opened up conversations about women, breast cancer and reproductive health."

-- Staff writer Jim Galloway contributed to this report.

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