LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Breast cancer awareness and prevention is a cause that is very near and dear to the heart of Msgr. J. Gaston Hebert, diocesan administrator of the Diocese of Little Rock.

That’s because his mother, Velda Hebert, died of breast cancer.

But when he rescinded a statement made by the diocese’s Respect Life Apostolate on Feb. 7 cautioning Arkansas Catholics from donating money to Susan G. Komen for the Cure because of grants made to Planned Parenthood, he had one motivation in mind: the truth.

“It is important that the stance of the Catholic Church always be based upon Truth. The position issued on Feb. 7 was based upon unintentional error,” Msgr. Hebert said in a new position paper released on March 6. “With apologies to Komen, to those fighting breast cancer and to the survivors, to the Catholic clergy and faithful who were embarrassed by this mistaken policy, I rescind the position statement in its entirety.”

After meeting with officials from the three Arkansas Komen affiliates, Msgr. Hebert felt confident that local Komen offices were not using proceeds they generated from events such as the Komen Race for the Cure to fund Planned Parenthood.

“The reality is that the national Komen foundation does not give grants to Planned Parenthood, and therefore, money given to Komen in Arkansas does not, even indirectly, fund abortion,” his statement said.

The national Komen headquarters in Dallas is the nation’s largest private provider of funds for breast cancer research and community outreach programs. These grants are given to local affiliates, who, in turn, after assessing their local needs, are free to disburse these grants to organizations or groups such as Planned Parenthood, solely to provide breast cancer-related services.

According to Rebecca Gibson, communications manager at Susan G. Komen for the Cure, of the $69.6 million that Susan G. Komen for the Cure affiliates invested in more than 1,600 community-based education, screening and treatment programs during 2007, Planned Parenthood funding accounted for $374,253, less than 1% of the total investment. Out of the 122 Komen affiliates in the United States, 19 affiliates in 14 states funded Planned Parenthood.

American Life League’s STOPP (Stop Planned Parenthood) said April 9 that Susan G. Komen Affiliates have given a total of $711,485 to Planned Parenthood affiliates across the country from April 1, 2005, to March 31, 2006.

Following the Money Trail

Other dioceses, however, still feel uneasy that money given to Komen may in some way contribute to abortions. Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis and Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix have been outspoken against Komen during the past several years.

“I think that it’s a bit unfortunate that the diocese [of Little Rock] rescinded the statement,” said Christina Heddell, director of the Respect Life Apostolate of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. “Our statement still stands. [Msgr. Hebert] said his decision was based on the realization that their local money does not fund Planned Parenthood, but here in St. Louis, local Komen affiliate money also does not fund Planned Parenthood. Just because it doesn’t happen in Missouri, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t affect us. Because Komen allows this in general, it’s something that we’re not comfortable with supporting.”

The Diocese of Lafayette, Ind., also urged local Catholics to boycott the Komen Race for the Cure that was expected to draw 40,000 to Indianapolis April 19.

“Donors cannot control how an organization designates its funds,” said Margie Crooks, director of the Pastoral Office for Family Life for the Lafayette diocese, in a March 10 statement approved by Bishop William Higi and sent to diocesan pastors. “Therefore, money donated for a specific service, i.e. breast health care, directly frees up funds to support other areas of an organization’s agenda, i.e. contraceptive services, ‘safe’ sex education and abortion services.”

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure spokeswoman said, however, that at least their own grant money goes directly toward breast health care.

“Once Komen grants the money, we have very detailed recording mechanisms to ensure the money is being used for what it is intended,” Gibson said of Komen’s funding. “After that, Komen can’t speak to how an organization, in this case Planned Parenthood, handles the rest of their budget. This is not something Komen would be responsible for — what they end up doing is not relevant to what we can comment on.”

Undeniable Link?

Some Catholic bishops and Respect Life ministries also take issue with Komen for denying a possible link between abortion and breast cancer. An abortion before 32 weeks leaves breast cells exposed to an excess of estrogen, which is highly carcinogenic. According to some researchers, this, in turn, can lead to breast cancer.

Before recanting his statement, Msgr. Hebert said he consulted a leading Arkansas oncologist and an endocrinologist, both of whom confirmed what leading research by the National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute show: that no conclusive link exists between abortion and breast cancer.

Hiddell, of the St. Louis Respect Life office, said she has read a number of findings and reports of the Coalition on Abortion and Breast Cancer has found it all “pretty convincing” on the link between abortion and breast cancer. “If the medical community considers this not a sure thing, I still think that in the name of research and in an effort to do the very best they can to provide care for women, Komen should pay attention to this.

What to Believe?

In the face of such controversy, what — or who — are Catholics to believe?

“I think that they are renowned bishops and have a right to do exactly as they feel they should do before God,” Msgr. Hebert said of Archbishop Burke and Bishop Olmsted. “I would not presume to tell those two renowned bishops what to do. I have the responsibility to do as I feel is right before God.”

“What I did initially was done without proper research. Obviously, whichever stand I take is not going to be popular with different groups,” added Hebert, who says he is an outspoken defender of life and frequent participant in prolife activities but also encouraged the creation of a breast cancer support group, which is named after his mother, at a parish in his diocese. “What I have to look at is what I think is just and right. That’s what I looked at and that’s what I had to base my decision on.”

Local bishops are free to evaluate many issues differently and may issue position papers advising their parishioners on these topics, even if they differ in opinion from other bishops. Though Msgr. Hebert is not a bishop, he was elected diocesan administrator by a diocesan college of consultors in June 2006 when Bishop J. Peter Sartain was installed as bishop of Joliet, Ill. Pope Benedict XVI named Father Anthony Taylor, a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, as bishop of Little Rock April 10. Bishop-elect Taylor will be installed June 5.

In order to avoid confusion, some dioceses simply encourage giving and participation in other organizations, such as those listed in the Official Catholic Directory.

“In our statement [in the Archdiocese of St. Louis], we have a list of other local hospitals that provide breast cancer services that we recommend people donate to,” said Hiddell. “It’s not like we’re after Komen; we’re really just trying to help people have the information that they need in order to be informed when they make these decisions. They do wonderful work but at this point, the good work that they do is kind of tainted by their association with Planned Parenthood, which does so many things that are opposed to our Catholic teaching.”

Angelique Ruhi-Lopez

writes from Miami.