Former Georgia secretary of state and Republican gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel, seen in this Aug. 2010 photo, is at the center of a the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s rift with Planned Parenthood.
Photo: Hyosub Shin
Photo: Hyosub Shin

Komen withdrawal of funds leaves Handel in spotlight

Praise and scorn rained down on Karen Handel Thursday, as both foes and supporters of abortion rights credited the former Georgia secretary of state for the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s rift with Planned Parenthood.

Those in the pro-life camp lauded Handel, who joined Komen last year as its vice president for public policy, for withdrawing funding for Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer screening programs. Pro-choice supporters targeted the former Georgia GOP gubernatorial candidate with their ire -- often expressed as sarcastic thank-yous after Planned Parenthood announced that the dust-up had brought in a one-day flood of more than $650,000 in donations.

Both Handel and Komen officials were mum Thursday on what role, if any, she played in the foundation’s policy switch. But the Internet bristled with speculation that she was behind the move, with many quoting Handel’s 2009 assertion on her campaign blog that “since I am pro-life, I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood.”

"I just donated to Komen as a thank-you for cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood. Keep up the great work!" wrote supporter Ric Stewart on Handel's Facebook page.

Meanwhile, over on Twitter, Washington resident Amy Blue tweeted: "hahahhaha ...  Donate to Planned Parenthood & request a thank you card be sent to: Karen Handel c/o Susan G. Komen Foundation."

It's early days yet, but Timothy Halloran, a brand management expert with Atlanta's Brand Illumination, questioned the wisdom of Komen's move. Other considerations aside, he said, "from a branding perspective, controversial things just take away from your overall message. The last thing you want to do as a successful brand is cloud your message, and that’s what I fear they are doing."

In an official statement and via a YouTube video, Komen officials said their decision stemmed from a new organizational policy that prohibits grants to groups under investigation by local, state or federal authorities. Planned Parenthood is being investigated by Florida Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns, who suspects that it violated a federal prohibition against using federal funds for abortion services.

But Planned Parenthood supporters said Komen's new policy was created as advance cover for splitting with the family planning group.

Former East Point city councilman Kevin Hudson used the Facebook page of Komen's Atlanta affiliate to denounce the world's leading organization fighting breast cancer.

"The fact that the ‘under investigation' policy was created -- quite obviously -- as a reaction to a purely partisan, politically motivated investigation speaks volumes about the national organization," he wrote. "They have tainted themselves and become tools of the investigators, who have already touted Komen's withdrawal as a sign that P.P. is not a trustworthy recipient of private or public funds."

None of Georgia's Planned Parenthood clinics received any of the roughly $700,000 formerly given each year by the Komen Foundation, said Planned Parenthood of Atlanta spokeswoman Leola Reis. Reis also said that the organization, which provides reproductive health care, sex education, health screenings and abortion services largely to the needy, used the Komen funds specifically for breast health screenings.

She said she was saddened by the decision, adding she believes Komen acted under pressure from anti-abortionists.

"We are friends. Komen and Planned Parenthood worked together for a lot of years on breast health and women’s health issues," she said. "Antis have applied political pressure and put a wedge in the issue."

Reis would not speculate about whether Handel pushed for the move, but said: "We know her track record and feelings about Planned Parenthood."

Komen's Atlanta affiliate appeared to try to distance itself from the national decision with a statement to media and on its Facebook page Thursday, saying: "We understand, and share, in the frustration around this situation. We hope that any investigation prohibiting Planned Parenthood from receiving future Komen grants is promptly resolved."

Atlanta Komen director Kelly Dolan referred questions to the national office. Komen national spokeswoman Andrea Rader said via email Thursday that if and when Planned Parenthood is no longer under investigation, it will once again be eligible to apply for grant funds.

The Health Initiative, an Atlanta non-profit geared towards healthcare for those in the lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender community, seized the controversy as a fund-raising opportunity. The agency said on its website that any donation made in Karen Handel's honor will be used to cover the cost of breast exams and annual physicals for uninsured lesbians through Planned Parenthood.

However other Atlantans lined up behind Komen.  "Just like a pro-abortion group to turn a cancer orgs decision into a political bomb to throw. Cry me a freaking river," tweeted Jade Morey, a director of business development for GoVote.com.

It was through Morey that Handel appeared to have weighed in publicly on the debate. She or someone managing her Twitter account retweeted Morey's comment. That message, however, was later deleted from Handel's account.

Not everyone jumped to the conclusion that Handel was the architect of Komen's decision, though.

Gen Wilson, of Georgia Right To Life said she's not convinced. The organization hammered Handel during her gubernatorial run for overseeing federal and state grants to Planned Parenthood while she was Fulton County Commissioner.

"If Ms. Handel has been involved in this decision, we’d love to see some credible documentation of that. Unfortunately we have seen none," Wilson said.

Staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this report.

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