The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation’s off- and apparently on-again decision to fund Planned Parenthood mirrors a similar situation with AT&T more than two decades ago, with dissimilar results.

The communications giant had been funding Planned Parenthood for 25 years. The grants were described as being educational outreach for teens. But in 1990, AT&T, facing pressure and a boycott from pro-life groups, abruptly announced that it would cease donating to Planned Parenthood.

In a foreshadowing of what happened to the Komen Foundation last week, AT&T immediately found itself the target of a bitter campaign to force it to restore Planned Parenthood funding.

The leadership of Planned Parenthood sprang into action. Prominent in Planned Parenthood’s effort to reverse AT&T’s decision was an ad campaign that featured full-page advertisements in The New York Times,The Los Angeles Times, USA Today and other major news outlets.

“Caving to Extremists, AT&T Hangs Up on Planned Parenthood,” read the headline. Included with the ads was a message to be clipped and sent to AT&T.

But it didn’t work. AT&T hung tough and has never restored the Planned Parenthood funding. Does this bode well for the Komen Foundation, which initially said it was ceasing to fund Planned Parenthood, only to appear to reverse itself in an apologetic statement a few days later?

Not necessarily.

“You almost have to be a multibillion-dollar corporation to withstand the assaults of Planned Parenthood,” said an insider who has been in touch with Komen personnel over this issue and spoke on condition of anonymity.  He said that Komen is the “perfect target” for Planned Parenthood because it must appeal to a broad spectrum of the public to raise money.

In some ways, however, the AT&T and Komen situations are parallel.In both cases, pressure to end the relationship with Planned Parenthood by pro-life groups appears to have been a key factor in both cases. 

A story in The Los Angeles Times, for example, detailed the kind of criticism Komen was getting from pro-lifers. It quoted minority women’s health activist Eve Sanchez Silver, who had been an enthusiastic member of a Komen advisory board for minority women.

But in 2004 Silver learned of the organization’s ties to Planned Parenthood and resigned from the board. “You cannot be a life-affirming organization in league with an organization that kills people,” Silver told the L.A. daily.

Culture War Retreat

Silver was not alone in thinking this way.

“The pressure from Americans who wanted Komen to get out of its relationship with Planned Parenthood was immense, ongoing and time-consuming,” the insider said. Komen personnel decided the proper course of action would be to end the relationship with Planned Parenthood and avoid taking any stand on the issue of abortion.

“They wanted to get out of the culture war,” the source explained, who spoke extensively with Komen personnel on this issue. “They wanted to become neutral in the culture war. They have spent years getting pummeled by people who do not believe a cancer organization should be supporting the largest abortion provider in our country.”

Komen quietly reached a decision to end funding for Planned Parenthood late last year. Instead of saying it wanted to remain neutral on the abortion issue, Komen said it could more effectively monitor how donations were used if it gave money directly to front-line providers of mammograms. Planned Parenthood routinely refers women to such providers.

Komen also said that it would no longer fund any organization that was under investigation. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., has launched a House investigation into how Planned Parenthood uses the money it receives from U.S. taxpayers.

Strangely, Komen did not make a public statement about what was undeniably an important policy change.

“We didn’t tell anyone except Planned Parenthood,” John Raffaelli, a Komen board member and prominent Washington lobbyist, told The New York Times. “We wanted to keep it quiet. We didn’t intend for this to be perceived as a victory for anybody. The whole approach was to not issue press releases to do anything to hurt Planned Parenthood.”

Despite Komen’s attempts to keep a lid on the subject, the story broke last Tuesday, and immediately Komen was the target of angry emails and postings on its Facebook page. No fewer than 26 pro-abortion members of the U.S. Senate added to the fray.

Mollie Williams, who supervised grants, including those to Planned Parenthood, resigned shortly after the decision. 


Several pro-life leaders referred to the campaign against Komen as comparable to a “mafia shakedown” led by Planned Parenthood. Both Komen and Planned Parenthood reported dramatic upswings in donations last week as the controversy went public.

Several published blogs and newspaper accounts have named Karen Handel, Komen’s new vice president of public policy and a pro-life Georgia politician who previously ran unsuccessfully for governor of Georgia, as the source of the decision.

UPDATE, FEB. 7, 10:42am: The Associated Press reported that Handel has resigned in the wake of the Planned Parenthood controversy.

The source who spoke to the Register on condition of anonymity said that the final decision was made by Komen CEO and founder Nancy Brinker (whose sister, Susan Komen, died of breast cancer) and Komen’s president, Elizabeth Thompson.

But Komen appeared to reverse itself by Friday, when it issued a contrite statement that began with the words, “We want to apologize to the American public for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women’s lives.”

Parsers of the entire statement, however, remain uncertain as to whether the statement is truly a reversal: It only says that Planned Parenthood is eligible to apply for future grants.

“My bet is that Planned Parenthood will flood Komen with grant applications this year,” said the source; as in: They are going to double-dog dare Komen to turn any of them down.

Board member Raffaelli observed that the Komen Foundation remains in an uncomfortable position.

“Is it possible for a woman’s health organization to stay out of the abortion issue and help all women?” Raffaelli asked in The New York Times story. “I don’t know the answer to that yet. What we were doing before was angering the right-to-life crowd. Then, with our decision in December, we upset the pro-choice crowd. And now we’re going to make the right-to-life crowd mad all over again. How do we stop doing that?”

Planned Parenthood can do just fine without Komen’s money — which came in at around $680,000 last year — so why is it so important?

Perhaps to understand you need to go back to the earlier dust-up with AT&T.

Faye Wattleton, who was president of Planned Parenthood at the time of the AT&T controversy, summed it up in her book Life on the Line. “Corporate support was only about 5% of our budget,” Wattleton wrote, “but it meant a great deal to us. The credibility that such endorsements bestowed was at least as valuable as the actual dollars given.”

Could it be that the mere association with Komen is more important to Planned Parenthood than the money?

Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.