Komen controversy continues

Komen controversy continues

February 9th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Karen Handel's resignation Tuesday as vice president for public policy of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation should not end useful public discussion about the mindset that prompted the foundation to cut funds for breast cancer screenings provided by Planned Parenthood affiliates. Fortunately, that decision has been rescinded, but the Komen foundation still must prove that its nonpartisan mission -- "to find a cure and eradicate breast cancer" -- has not been permanently sullied by the political activism that prompted the ill-conceived cut-off of funds.

The departure of Handel, an abortion foe who as a failed candidate for Georgia governor called for ending federal money to Planned Parenthood, is an indication of that face-saving effort. Widely viewed as the catalyst for the Planned Parenthood funding debacle, Handel denied that role, writing that discussions on the topic were underway when she joined Komen. So far, though, neither Handel's resignation nor a letter from Nancy G. Brinker, foundation founder and chief executive, admitting mistakes were made has mollified the public.

If anything scrutiny of the foundation continued to expand at midweek. Donations from many who view Komen's original decision as kowtowing to antiabortion activists continued to flow to Planned Parenthood. Some Tennessee residents joined in the show of support.

Jeff Teague, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Middle Tennessee and East Tennessee ,said his office had received thousands of dollars in donations since the initial Komen announcement. Many others with no previous ties to the group that operates centers in Knoxville, Nashville and Johnson City (Chattanooga, Teague said, has not had a Planned Parenthood presence since the early 1990s), called to offer support for the organization.

Komen's recent experience is decidedly different. Officials here and elsewhere report a rise in calls and some contributions, but not a great show of support. The executive director for Chattanooga's branch of Komen said last week that about half the calls and emails she received supported the decision to cut funding and that half opposed it. That's a radical turn of events for a group that has enjoyed such universal support that it was the envy of many similar organizations.

The additional scrutiny also has prompted uncomfortable queries for Komen. Some worry that the nonprofit's fundraising costs have risen from 17 to 25 cents per dollar in the last year. While not exceedingly high by industry standards, observers rightly question the reason for the increase.

Others are concerned that the agency's mania for money might have trumped its mission -- and good sense. They question, for instance, why Komen would partner with KFC in a campaign called "Buckets for the Cure" when many of the fast food company's products are fried and have high caloric content. A high-fat diet and obesity, after all, have been tied directly to a rise in breast cancer risk.

Komen's reputation in the charitable, women's health and breast cancer communities has taken an undeniable hit. Despite frantic repair efforts, damage to the agency is palpable. Officials, no doubt, hope that the public has a short memory, and that the group's future prospects are brighter. Don't bet on it.

Komen will know soon enough -- when local groups begin reporting the results of the group's famed races and walks "for the cure." Any reduction in funds raised -- Chattanooga's chapter raised about $500,000 last year -- will be a sure indication that the politically inspired, on-and-off again decision to cut breast-screening funds to Planned Parenthood is costly and long-lasting.