PITTSFORD — A year later and knowing what she knows now, would Karen Handel do it all over again?
Handel had been the senior vice president for public policy for the breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure in 2012 when it was revealed that Komen changed a policy that resulted in it pulling breast cancer screening funding from Planned Parenthood.
"I learned that it is important to make sure that an organization has the willpower to absorb and endure big change," Handel said.
Handel, who has written a book about her experience titled Planned Bullyhood, was at St. John Fisher College Feb. 21 to speak during an event sponsored by Women’s Care Center, a crisis pregnancy center on Lake Avenue in Rochester.
In 2012, it was revealed that the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation was cutting funding to organizations that were under investigation by any governmental body; the announcement only affected Planned Parenthood, which was being investigated by then-U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., to determine whether the organization was spending public money to provide abortions.
Over the years, the Komen foundation has said that the grants it provides to Planned Parenthood are intended to go toward funding breast exams, but that it was unable to control how funds are allocated at Planned Parenthood. At the time of Komen’s funding decision, Planned Parenthood said that the grants funded 170,000 clinical breast exams each year and 6,400 mammogram referrals.
After several days of massive public outcry over the funding cut, Komen announced that it had changed its policy and would only cut funding to organizations under conclusive criminal investigations, which allowed for funding to Planned Parenthood to be reinstated. Komen CEO and founder Nancy Brinker also announced Handel’s departure from Komen.
Though Handel was part of the team that decided to reduce funding, she said the roots of the policy change predated her and were prompted by more than a decade of pro-life backlash against Komen due to its funding of Planned Parenthood, which is the nation’s largest provider of abortions.
"About a year before I got there, Komen undertook a very intensive review of its grants, and as part of that, it was decided to try a different type of granting strategy," she said.
Planned Parenthood said in August and February 2012 statements that the Komen funding decision had been made through "intense pressure from political groups," and it said that Komen at the time had politicized a women’s health issue. Komen had said in statements in February 2012 that its funding decision was not politically motivated, but was aimed at safeguarding donor dollars.
One result of the Komen decision was an outpouring of money; thousands from pro-lifers went to Komen for the short-lived decision, and more than $3 million from those who opposed the decision went to a breast health fund set up by Planned Parenthood, which earmarked the funds for costs for follow-up diagnostic care, digital breast health education resources for women ages 18 to 39, expanded education to Latinas, and tools for doctors and nurses to better assess breast cancer risk in patients under 40. The organization does not routinely offer mammograms, but some of its locations periodically host mobile mammography clinics.
Handel said the approximately $700,000 in grant funding that had been the subject of the dispute was a drop in the bucket for both organizations, but she said she believes Planned Parenthood pushed back vigorously against the decision because it gains by aligning itself with Komen.
"It was about the legitimacy and credibility that Planned Parenthood was able to gain from being able to be associated with a ‘good’ organization like Komen," Handel said.
Based on her experience, Handel said she believes those in the pro-life community need to focus on changing women’s attitudes toward abortion to make it an unthinkable choice.
"We need to work to aspire to a higher goal and a more just society in which it is truly morally reprehensible to choose to kill one’s baby," Handel said.
Handel, who served as Georgia’s secretary of the state from 2007-10, said she is not currently running for office but is considering a run for an open Senate seat in Georgia if another fellow Republican chooses not to run for the seat.
Joan McCarthy, executive director of Women’s Care Center, which serves more than 1,000 families per year, said the organization jumped at the chance to hear Handel speak about her public fight and how she stuck by her beliefs. The pro-life community, McCarthy noted, is alarmed by potential changes to abortion laws in New York that she said might expand abortion in the state.
"We are hoping that these types of conflicts will come to an end, but we are prepared to continue to oppose the expansion of abortion in New York and the United States," McCarthy said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Women’s Care Center will host its annual gala April 18 at Webster Country Club and will feature pro-life speaker and attorney Rebecca Kiessling, who was conceived during a rape and who was scheduled to have been aborted. For details, call 585-865-0360.