Planned Parenthood, Komen, And The Never Ending Culture Wars

Once again, the culture wars intrude into yet another area of life.

Outside of the Presidential campaign, the biggest controversy this week has erupted surrounding the decision of the Susan G. Komen Foundation to end certain funding for Planned Parenthood. The result has been that a charity that has built its brand on fighting breast cancer, something that everyone can agree on regardless of their political opinions, into the middle of the culture wars. The reaction has been about what you’d expect. On the right, the decision is being praised by pro-life advocates many of whom have called on supporters to increase donations to the Foundation as a sign of support. Among pro-choice advocates and supporters of Planned Parenthood, the reaction has been quite different, of course. Koman affiliates on the West Coast have openly opposed the decision, and one board member stepped down as a result of the decision. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pledged to donate a quarter million dollars of his own money to Planned Parenthood. Two dozen Members of Congress signed a letter urging Komen to restore funding, and, this morning, The New York Times published an editorial describing the decision as “a painful betrayal.”

In attempting to justify the decision, one has to say that the spokesmen for Komen have been all over the place. Initially, they said that the decision was made as a result of Foundation policy that money would not be given to any organization under investigation. As it turns out, Planned Parenthood is under investigation by Republican Congressman Cliff Sterns over allegations by pro-life groups that it used government funds for abortions, which is forbidden by Federal law. There’s little evidence that the investigation has any merit, though, and it’s worth noting that this policy didn’t exist until very recently and is only being applied to Planned Parenthood. As several people noted online yesterday, Komen gives research funding to Penn State University, which is itself under investigation by two Federal agencies related to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Those funds are apparently not going to be cut off, so the “under investigation” rule seems to be very flexible or very specifically directed.  Komen spokespeople have also claimed that part of the motivation for the decision was that Planned Parenthood doesn’t provide mammograms at its facilities, but instead refers patients to facilities where they can be obtained. Of course, that’s true for pretty much every doctor practicing medicine in the United States, very few of whom have the equipment to perform mammograms on-site.

Through all the explanations, though, there’s been the denial that Komen was specifically looking for a way to target Planned Parenthood. Jeffery Goldberg at The Atlantic, though, seems to suggest that the facts say otherwise:

Komen, the marketing juggernaut that brought the world the ubiquitous pink-ribbon campaign, says it cut off Planned Parenthood because of a newly adopted foundation rule prohibiting it from funding any group that is under formal investigation by a government body. (Planned Parenthood is being investigated by Representative Cliff Stearns, an anti-abortion Florida Republican, who says he is trying to learn if the group spent public money to provide abortions.)

But three sources with direct knowledge of the Komen decision-making process told me that the rule was adopted in order to create an excuse to cut off Planned Parenthood. (Komen gives out grants to roughly 2,000 organizations, and the new “no investigations” rule applies to only one so far.) The decision to create a rule that would cut funding to Planned Parenthood, according to these sources, was driven by the organization’s new senior vice president for public policy, Karen Handel, a former gubernatorial candidate from Georgia who is staunchly anti-abortion and who has said that since she is “pro-life, I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood.” (The Komen grants to Planned Parenthood did not pay for abortion or contraception services, only cancer detection, according to all parties involved.) I’ve tried to reach Handel for comment, and will update this post if I speak with her.

If this is true, it is entirely inexplicable to me. I don’t understand why a charity like Komen would willingly inject itself into one of the most hotly contested and impossible to resolve issues in American history. One of the main reasons that the Foundation and its ubiquitous pink ribbon campaign (so ubiquitous that it was featured prominently in every NFL game in the month of October) has been so successful is because of universal appeal. Deliberately pissing off at least half the population by making a decision like this that was so obviously directed at Planned Parenthood specifically and then handling the PR part of it in such and ham-handed manner is a striking departure from what has been a finely-tuned operation. Was it Handel’s appointment as VP that led them down this road? Janice Brinker, who founded and still heads the foundation, denies that she played a role in the decision but the coincidence seems far too convenient to ignore. I’m not saying it was wrong to hire Handel, but why they would listen to advice that was so obviously political I don’t understand at all.

Megan McArdle defends the decision as being in the long term interest of the Foundation:

Goldberg clearly disapproves of the decision.  Though I’m pro-choice, I don’t share the outrage that was roiling my Twitter feed this morning.  It is, as Josh Barro noted, absurd to pretend that abortion is somehow incidental to Planned Parenthood’s services, and since money is fungible, giving them money is probably helping to fund abortion provision.  Since I think this is a very tough issue on which reasonable people can disagree, I can see why the federal government, and private foundations, would decline to fund their operations.


Susan G. Komen is part of the broad constellation of “women’s groups” that tend to hand together on various issues, including (maybe especially) abortion.  Why would they cut ties to a group that in past decades would have been a natural ally?

I’m tempted to credit shifting public opinion, but polling about abortion has been pretty stable over the last 15 years.  It could be a shift in the donor base, or the board itself.  Or perhaps it’s a more subtle shift in opinion.  While most people think that abortion should be legal, most people don’t support the current state of abortion law; polling seems to suggest that the majority either wants abortion to be illegal in all cases, or legal only in the first trimester–and even then, possibly only in the case of rape, incest, and the life of the mother.  A majority of people polled say that abortion is morally wrong.  And pro-life identification runs neck-in-neck with pro choice.

In that environment, you can see why an organization that does not itself have a mission to support abortion access would want to pull back from funding Planned Parenthood, even for related services.

I guess so, although again abortion is such a polarizing issue on both sides of the ball, something that seems to be becoming true about Planned Parenthood thanks to what can only be called a very effective attack campaign from the right. Wouldn’t it be better for a charity to simply take no position on an issue like this at all and only act in a manner that advances the cause it exists for?

That’s why I agree with Jazz Shaw when he calls this entire affair a tragedy:

We’ve taken a group which was singly and purely focused on preventing breast cancer – a malady which affects both “bad girls” and “good girls” alike – and dragged them into the political battlefield on a subject which they never sought to engage. The final result – no matter how you feel about abortion, Planned Parenthood, or any of the myriad soldiers involved – is that less money winds up going to fight a fully preventable disease afflicting women who cut across all political and ideological lines.

So for those who are doing an end zone dance this week over the decision made by Komen… I hope you’re proud of yourselves. I see no reason to celebrate.

I’d argue that the same thing has happened to Planned Parenthood, an organization that does far more than provide abortions. In fact, according to most reports abortion accounts for no more than 10% of the business that the organization does, the rest of it involves education and providing contraceptives and preventive heath care services (including early breast exams) to poor women in cities and rural areas. Thanks to the eternal culture war over abortion, though, they’ve been demonized and now Komen has too. That’s just sad all around.

Update: Komen is announcing this morning that it is reversing its decision and will restore all funding to Planned Parenthood. Prepare for a backlash from the pro-life crowd.

Photo via Pegasus News

FILED UNDER: Environment, Gender Issues, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Hey Norm says:

    Komen has been discredited and PP has recieved more than the equivilant amount in donations…like Bloomberg’s which you mentioned.
    The obsession over the wombs of American women by Republicans like Cliff Stearns is pathological. Small Government nutcases who want Government to intude on womens rights. The hypocrisy is breathtaking…and yet completely predictable.

  2. Eric says:

    I think what makes me sad is the amount of people that are happy about this claiming that all the money Planned Parenthood receives from the govt, donations, and other organizations are used to “kill babies.” I’m not sure if this was political (a little too coincidental), but now we all have to suffer another round of abortion debates.

    This sucks.

  3. BluePen9uin says:
  4. Ron Beasley says:

    There is a potentially damaging Documentary, Pink Ribbons, Inc coming out today. It was in the works long before the PP brouhaha.

  5. Modulo Myself says:

    Planned Parenthood is involved with providing abortions because this is a part of health care. Blaming them for this would be like saying the medical profession has become politicized because it believes in evolution and genetics.

  6. Vast Variety says:

    MSNBC is reporting that Komen has reversed their decision and will continue to fund PP.

  7. Fiona says:

    The decision by the Komen Foundation was wrong-headed and will likely cost them more support than it wins. Planned Parenthood probably prevents plenty of abortions by providing health care, education, and contraception to lower-income and poor women.

    The right, in their on-going war against women’s rights, has indeed demonized Planned Parenthood. The organization is a convenient target for them, even though it gets no federal funding for abortion, a legal procedure, and even though abortion is but a small portion of the important services it provides.

  8. PD Shaw says:

    I pretty much feel the same way about this as the war on Catholic Charities, both CC and PP provide important services in many communities in which the alternatives may not be as good or may have their own problems. I think they both should be supported.

  9. Hey Norm says:

    Komen backpedals, reverses their decision, and spins away…

    “…Our original desire was to fulfill our fiduciary duty to our donors by not funding grant applications made by organizations under investigation. We will amend the criteria to make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political. That is what is right and fair…”

  10. Vast Variety says:

    @PD Shaw: There is no war on Catholic Charities.

  11. Brummagem Joe says:

    Thanks to the eternal culture war over abortion, though, they’ve been demonized and now Komen has too. That’s just sad all around.

    Doug this is what is called a self inflicted wound. Komen hasn’t been demonised as you suggest (which perhaps pigeonholes you) but based on the available evidence (you are a lawyer aren’t you?) has succumbed to political pressure. I can only tell you that my old lady who is a fairly devout catholic but regularly contributes to Komen was outraged by this decision. Her words….”It stinks.”

  12. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Hey Norm:

    Oops should have read this before posting. Looks like they are running for the hills.

  13. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I think that this is probably a win for Planned Parenthood and a loss for Komen in the long run.

    There really was no solid reason for Komen to make such a hamfisted move. If they wanted to end their relationship with Planned Parenthood, they simply could have not renewed existing contracts as they expired. As it is, they’ve hugely tarnished their brand and probably made a lot of their corporate sponsors quite nervous.

    For Planned Parenthood, I think this brings increased awareness of all of the various health issues they cover in addition to abortion and contraception. i.e. ‘Wait, Planned Parenthood provides breast cancer screenings? Huh, I didn’t know that. What else do they do?”

    I think that there are probably a lot of middle age women (and their loved ones) who used PP in college or their 20s as their primary health care or in an emergency, but who haven’t really had to think about them for a long time. As they’ve gotten older, they’ve been somehow impacted by breast cancer (themselves or a friend or loved one) and ended up identifying with the Komen brand. Most of them probably are too busy with careers and kids to pay much attention to the abortion wars beyond headlines.

    I’m guessing a lot of them have thought more about PP in the past 72 hours than they have in years, and in a way that benefits PP.

  14. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Gromitt Gunn:

    I’m guessing a lot of them have thought more about PP in the past 72 hours than they have in years, and in a way that benefits PP.

    The law of unintended consequences perhaps unseen by the right to lifers putting political pressure on Komen? As a sidebar to this is does indicate the firestorm that would erupt should there be any serious attempt nationally to overturn Roe. I’ve long believed that the current status is in many ways an optimum one for the pro life folks in that it keeps the issue alive and gives them both a cultural and a financial political weapon but were it overturned nationally the impact on a heck of a lot of women who don’t pay much attention would be considerable to say the least. Be careful what you wish for?

  15. Nightrider says:

    What’s with the Megan McArdle stuff about public opinion shifting toward the anti-choice/pro-life direction? I don’t have any data but if anything would have guessed a slight trend in the opposite direction as more Millenials reach voting age. I would think that the shift won’t be as significant as with gay rights, but at least some.

  16. gVOR08 says:

    Wow, Komen must have caught a scheisssturm of epic proportions. Every statement they’ve made on this topic has been obvious evasive BS. They are now entitled to no credibility. It remains to be seen whether their backdown is genuine.

    Doug, you say you find the Komen decision to defund PP “inexplicable”. Why? Their founder has been an active Republican. They picked up a wingnut VP. It’s possible they made a reasoned decision to keep their distance from PP now that PP is a right wing target. It’s more likely they acted from ideological motives. In either case, it seems fair to assume they live partly in the right wing bubble and failed to anticipate the inevitable reaction. Sort of like Walker failing to recognize that his capitol is in the middle of the Madison SSR. “Inexplicable” is Jazz Shaw’s, “We’ve taken a group…and dragged them into the political battlefield”. We? Dragged? They chose to leap in.

  17. Neil Hudelson says:

    @PD Shaw:

    What war on Catholic Charities? (That’s an honest question–I’m not familiar with what you are referring to).

    Speaking to the larger issue of right vs. left, pro-choice vs anti-choice–from what I’ve seen in red state Indiana, this issue is crossing some of those boundaries. A lot of my conservative women friends and family are aghast at Komen’s decision.

    My grandmother–who is staunchly anti choice–also knows that Planned Parenthood was the only source of women’s health care for many of her grand daughters.

    Pulling funding from planned parenthood doesn’t stop abortions, it stops women’s health care. Many hardcore conservative women understand this.

  18. WR says:

    I’d guess this is part and parcel with the congressional Republicans’ attempts to destroy Medicare so they can lower taxes for rich people. As the rightwing echo chamber has grown, righties have stopped listening to all those “lamestream” sources of information. And since everything they do hear from Fox and from right wing blogs reinforces what they already think, they come to believe that everybody in America agrees with them. Here, I suspect the righties at Komen spent some time in the echo chamber and “learned” that all of America loathes Planned Parenthood.

    It’s good to get your head out of your own ass sometimes…

  19. PD Shaw says:

    @Neil Hudelson: I was speaking broadly about Catholic Charities as part of or object of the culture wars.

    For example, in this state, the government is barred by a court injunction from charging parochial schools unemployment insurance. The state, at the direction of the federal government, constantantly violates the injunction because progressives don’t believe the exemption makes sense or is fair or the government needs the money too badly.

  20. Nikki says:

    The state, at the direction of the federal government, constantantly violates the injunction because progressives don’t believe the exemption makes sense or is fair or the government needs the money too badly.

    Oh good lord. The state ignores the injunction because, with regard to this issue, federal law trumps state law. Why did you feel the need to make this a “progressives vs. conservatives” argument?

  21. de stijl says:

    In fact, according to most reports abortion accounts for no more than 10% of the business that the organization does, the rest of it involves education and providing contraceptives and preventive heath care services (including early breast exams) to poor women in cities and rural areas.

    From Wiki:

    In 2009, Planned Parenthood provided 4,009,549 contraceptive services (35% of total), 3,955,926 sexually transmitted disease services (35% of total), 1,830,811 cancer related services (16% of total), 1,178,369 pregnancy/prenatal/midlife services (10% of total), 332,278 abortion services (3% of total), and 76,977 other services (1% of total), for a total of 11,383,900 services.[35][7][37][38][39][40] The organization also said its doctors and nurses annually conduct 1 million screenings for cervical cancer and 830,000 breast exams.

  22. David M says:

    If the War on Catholic Charities includes requiring them to pay unemployment insurance, I’m going to have a hard time taking it too seriously.

  23. PD Shaw says:

    @Nikki: There is no federal law; its a state program that federal money subsidizes, so there is no supremacy issue. The government loses these cases in court, they just think most schools will simply pay up because its cheaper than a lawsuit.

    And I wouldn’t characterize it as a conservative versus progressive issue because populist Democrats don’t agree with progressives on this one.

  24. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @PD Shaw: How would all of the laid-off hourly workers feel about it if they couldn’t collect unemployment in the summer time because their employer was too cheap to pay in to the fund during the year? That seems to run counter to Catholic ideals of social justice. Or is your position that the parochial schools should be able to transfer the cost of providing employment benefits unfairly onto non-religious business owners and individual taxpayers, regardless of whether they share the religious employers’ beliefs?

  25. PD Shaw says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: My position is that the government should follow the law. When they have a dispute about how the law is applied, they should take it to court and then abide by the judge’s ruling. If they don’t like the ruling, they should change the law and not ignore the judge’s ruling. If the judge enters an injunction against the government, the government should abide by it. If they feel like the injunction should be lifted, they should petition the court to lift it and not simply ignore the injunction.

  26. Tlaloc says:

    I am gobsmacked, perhaps even flabbergasted by what a cluster*&^% this has been for Komen. They managed to simultaneously make it much wider knowledge that they contributed to PP, thus infuriating naive prolifers, then cut that funding for transparent reasons which infuriated prochoicers, then switched stories repeatedly which infuriates anyone who expects competency from komen, then issues a sort half way reversal that will only manage to further infuriate both pro-choicers and pro-lifers.

    If they set out to completely annihilate their credibility with, well, everyone I can’t imagine how they could have done a better job.

    At the same time prolifers did nearly as badly. They tried to strong arm an organization only to find out PP was the 800 pound gorilla. You really think any other organization is going to cave to them now? They saw just how fast Komen got beat to crap. And not many orgs have Komen’s pull in terms of money or public goodwill (or had in this case). The prolifers just sent a nice message to everyone “be afraid of crossing Planned Parenthood!”

    I’d feel bad for them if they weren’t , you know, assholes. A perfect example of be careful what you wish for, as you just might get it.

  27. Tlaloc says:

    sorry that should be “cut funding for transparently political reasons…”

  28. Brutalfacts says:

    Komen is now on life support. Sponsors will flee as they have made themselves radioactive, pro choicers will no longer contribute as they are not trusted and pro lifers will send money elsewhere simply because they caved. Add to that a documentary coming out today that is unflattering to Komen AND the curtain has been pulled back showing the groups strong ties to Republicans and worse yet, the Tea Party..

    Say what you want, Planned Parenthood is the gold standardfor non profit womens health care because they treat the entire women without getting muddled in the abortion debat, there is no question where they stand.. They will be investigated, villified, and in the end will only grow stronger since there is not a group out there that can replace what they do.

  29. Turner says:

    @Tlaloc: I would think that the mission of PP should and must be developing good parents – that is their name. This strongly implies life and health. Nothing else should be supported.

  30. de stijl says:


    I’m pretty sure that you’ve missed the “Planned” part of their name.

    That word does have a meaning. It’s not there as a placeholder.

  31. grumpy realist says:

    What I loved about PP (and yes, I have used it) is they treated me with absolute respect, talked for quite a bit about why they had put me on the birth control pills they did, and started off with the lowest possible dosage.

    In short, everything that one would hope to find from a medical provider and often don’t.

    The reason I stopped donating to PP was because I found that if you donated you ended up on their begging-by-mail list and they gave you name to all the other progressive beggars as well. The ACLU did the same thing even after I had specifically asked them to not put me on any list whatsoever–bad, bad ACLU.

    Charities would get a hell of a lot more $ if they didn’t take one donation as license for eternal begging.