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September 1, 2014

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Politics and purpose: The aftermath of the Susan G. Komen fiasco

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Rex C. Curry, AP

Planned Parenthood received donations around $3 million over the past 10 days.

In the latest development in Planned Parenthood vs. Susan G. Komen for the Cure vs. the world, Komen Vice President of Public Affairs Karen Handel resigned Tuesday, but not before issuing a resignation letter that boiled down to this: We did nothing wrong. This is all your fault.

The “we” is Komen, the breast cancer organization that has invested nearly $2 billion in diagnosis, treatment, research and education since 1982, and Handel herself, a former Republican candidate for governor of Georgia, who ran in 2010 on an anti-abortion platform. The people to blame? The thousands who protested online last week after Komen announced it would cease to give Planned Parenthood nearly $700,000 in annual funding in an effort to implement “more stringent eligibility and performance criteria” for its grants.

Comments piled up on Komen’s Facebook wall, with posters calling the move a “monumental betrayal” and threatening to burn their survivor T-shirts. In Las Vegas, local breast cancer survivor Linda Burger published a YouTube response (“What breast cancer is, and is not!”) demonstrating the anger and disappointment many survivors expressed in the wake of the decision. Pulling open her bathrobe to show bilateral mastectomies, Burger addressed the camera: “Do you see politics on my chest? Do you see Republican, Democrat, Tea Party or Independent anywhere on my chest? I don’t.”

But Komen did. The organization hired Handel despite her apparent distaste for women’s health below the belt. Putting a politician, Republican or Democrat, with a politicized position on women’s health in charge of Komen meant opening it up to potential influence. That the breast cancer powerhouse might be swayed by political pressure is distasteful. Should it have shocked us? Maybe not.

What breast cancer is, and is not!

The messiness of mixing charity with politics is far from unprecedented. In 2010, the New York Times linked more than two dozen politically connected charities to donations from companies hoping to influence them. But until last week, most of us supported the Komen cause, without questioning the people in control. Which is why the Great Komen Fiasco may prove to be a positive. It has reminded us to educate ourselves before writing that check, and it has reminded charities’ CEOs and board members what happens when you let politics interfere with purpose. And the saga has worked out all right for Planned Parenthood, too. Not only did Komen reverse its decision, but the organization received donations of roughly $3 million over the past 10 days. Not bad for a quick scandal.

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