How Komen’s Fear of “Controversy” Made It a Political Tool

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 7 2012 2:27 PM

How Komen Became a Tool

Defunding Planned Parenthood over “controversy” was politics by another name.

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Nancy Brinker, CEO and founder of the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images.

Karen Handel has resigned from the Komen foundation. Handel, a pro-lifer who was blamed by insiders for the foundation’s decision to defund Planned Parenthood, says the decision was driven by Komen’s need to avoid controversy, not by politics. But you can’t have one without the other. If you refuse to fund organizations embroiled in controversy, you invite their enemies to make them controversial. In so doing, you make yourself political.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

In her resignation letter to Komen CEO Nancy Brinker, Handel writes that

the controversy related to Planned Parenthood has long been a concern to [Komen]. Neither the decision nor the [grant rule] changes themselves were based on anyone’s political beliefs or ideology. Rather, both were based on Komen’s mission and how to better serve women, as well as a realization of the need to distance Komen from controversy. … [The decision] has unfortunately been turned into something about politics. This is entirely untrue.

This matches a statement from Komen on Friday, in which Brinker said the foundation would reconsider its decision and its funding criteria:

We have been distressed at the presumption that the changes made to our funding criteria were done for political reasons or to specifically penalize Planned Parenthood. They were not. … It is our hope and we believe it is time for everyone involved to pause, slow down and reflect on how grants can most effectively and directly be administered without controversies that hurt the cause of women. We urge everyone who has participated in this conversation across the country over the last few days to help us move past this issue. We do not want our mission marred or affected by politics—anyone’s politics.

In both statements, you can see Brinker and Handel renouncing politics but affirming “the need to distance Komen from controversy” and to administer grants “without controversies.” So what counts as a controversy? Let’s look at the Dec. 16 internal memo in which the foundation articulated its new funding criteria:

[S]hould Komen become aware that an applicant or its affiliates are under formal investigation for financial or administrative improprieties by local, state or federal authorities, the applicant will be ineligible to receive a grant. … [V]arious authorities at both the state and federal levels are conducting investigations involving [Planned Parenthood] and some of its local chapters, and the organization is barred from receiving government funding in numerous states. Under these new criteria, Planned Parenthood will be ineligible to receive new funding from Komen until these investigations are complete and these issues are resolved.

Under these rules, if you want to create a controversy that will lead Komen to defund an organization, all you have to do is open an investigation. That’s what happened to Planned Parenthood. On Sept. 15, Rep Cliff Stearns, R-Fl., chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations within the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, sent Planned Parenthood a letter announcing that the committee was investigating Planned Parenthood’s “use of federal funding and its compliance with federal restrictions on the funding of abortion.” Under the rules articulated three months later by Komen, this letter instantly made Planned Parenthood ineligible for any Komen grant.

Stearns’ letter was sent on the official stationery of the energy and commerce committee, with the name of the committee’s ranking Democratic member, Henry Waxman, D-Calif., displayed in the upper right-hand corner as an imprimatur. But Waxman didn’t sign the letter. In fact, two weeks later, Waxman and Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, sent Stearns a letter denouncing his investigation as a partisan sham. “This year, House Republicans have voted twice to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding,” they observed. “You strongly supported these efforts, stating that ‘defunding Planned Parenthood should be a fiscal and moral priority for Congress.’ ”

In sum, the investigation was created by one man. Using his committee stationery, he converted his politics into a controversy, triggering Komen’s grant-refusal criteria.

Brinker is beginning to understand the problem. In her statement on Friday, she wrote, “We will amend the criteria to make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political.”

I doubt those amendments will do the job. What Komen needs in its grant criteria—and what any funder needs—is the same anti-politics safeguard the founders of our country put in the Constitution: checks and balances. Any investigation sufficient to trigger a grant cutoff can’t be unilateral. It has to require the approval of some impartial or independent collaborator: a judge, a nonpartisan regulator, or the ranking member of the other party. That’s the principle Waxman and DeGette invoked in their letter to Stearns:

The HHS Inspector General and state Medicaid programs regularly audit Planned Parenthood and report publicly on their findings. These audits have not identified any pattern of misuse of federal funds, illegal activity, or other abuse that would justify a broad and invasive congressional investigation.

If Stearns can produce evidence sufficient to get Waxman, the HHS inspector general, or a judge on board with his investigation, fine. If not, his investigation and the controversy it generates are just politics by another name. And Komen will have to endure that controversy, unless it’s willing to be a political tool.

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