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Originally published February 2, 2012 at 9:39 PM | Page modified February 2, 2012 at 11:15 PM

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National furor over Komen's cuts to Planned Parenthood

Komen's top leaders, in their first news conference since the controversy erupted, denied that the Planned Parenthood decision was driven by pressure from anti-abortion groups.

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Renowned breast-cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure faced an escalating backlash Thursday over its decision to cut breast-screening grants to Planned Parenthood. Some of Komen's local affiliates, including one in Seattle, are openly upset, and at least one top official has quit, reportedly in protest.

The Puget Sound Komen affiliate in Seattle, expressing its "extreme disappointment and frustration," on Thursday beseeched the national Komen office to rescind or revise its "misguided" policy.

In the letter from Cheryl Shaw, executive director, and Joni Earl, board president, the local affiliate said the national policy is "overly broad and strips the authority from affiliates to determine how to best serve our local communities with the funds entrusted to us by our donors."

Komen's biggest fundraising event is its annual multicity "Race for the Cure," scheduled in Seattle for June 3.

Komen also has been deluged with negative emails and Facebook postings, accusing the organization of knuckling under to anti-abortion groups, since it was reported Tuesday that it was halting grants that Planned Parenthood affiliates used for breast exams and related services. The grants totaled $680,000 last year.

Planned Parenthood has been heartened by an outpouring of support in response to the cutoff. Besides $400,000 in smaller donations, a family foundation in Dallas has contributed $250,000 and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Thursday he would match up to $250,000 in future donations.

More than $8,000 has come into Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest since Wednesday, spokeswoman Kristen Glundberg-Prossor said. "We've been inundated. ... People have been writing checks and leaving them in the office."

There's been a "steady drumbeat of phone calls, and people are coming up with very, very creative ideas to raise money for Planned Parenthood," she said. "It's very exciting."

Meanwhile, 25 Democratic senators, including Washington's Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders signed a letter calling on Komen to reconsider its move.

"It would be tragic if any woman — let alone thousands of women — lost access to these potentially lifesaving screenings because of a politically motivated attack," the senators wrote.

Komen's top leaders, in their first news conference since the controversy erupted, denied Planned Parenthood's assertion that the decision was driven by pressure from anti-abortion groups.

"We don't base our funding decisions ... on whether one side or the other will be pleased," said Komen founder and CEO Nancy Brinker, depicting the criticism as a mischaracterization of the charity's goals and mission.

Komen has said the decision stemmed from newly adopted criteria barring grants to organizations under investigation — affecting Planned Parenthood because of an inquiry by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., acting with encouragement from anti-abortion activists.

Brinker said there were additional factors, notably changes in the types of breast-health-service providers it wanted to support. However, she said grants would continue this year to three of the 19 Planned Parenthood affiliates — in Denver, California's Orange County and Waco, Texas — because they served clientele with few other breast-screening options.

A source with direct knowledge of decision-making at Komen's headquarters in Dallas gave a different account, saying the grant-making criteria were adopted with the deliberate intention of targeting Planned Parenthood. The criteria's impact on Planned Parenthood and its status as the focus of government investigations were highlighted in a memo distributed to Komen affiliates in December.

According to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, a driving force behind the move was Karen Handel, hired by Komen last year as vice president for public policy. Handel lost a Georgia gubernatorial campaign in which she stressed her anti-abortion views and frequently denounced Planned Parenthood.

Brinker, in an interview with MSNBC, said Handel didn't have a significant role in the policy change.

The source also said Mollie Williams, Komen's director of community-health programs, had quit in protest.

Williams, in an email, said she could not comment on her departure for reasons of professional confidentiality, but she was clear about her views. "I have dedicated my career to fighting for the rights of the marginalized and underserved," she wrote. "And I believe it would be a mistake for any organization to bow to political pressure and compromise its mission."

Williams, who had been responsible for overseeing the distribution of $93 million in Komen grants to more than 2,000 community-health organizations, said she was saddened by the rift because she admired Komen and Planned Parenthood.

The rift troubled other Komen fans. Celeste McDonell, a Seattle lawyer, has been a longtime passionate Komen advocate.

A breast-cancer survivor, she has chaired a "Row for the Cure" event that's raised more than $500,000 for the local Komen affiliate in the past decade — $84,000 last year — and has been a strong supporter financially.

After more than two decades of support, she said: "I am completely torn. ... I am trying to decide."

McDonell's law firm, which Monday night renewed sponsorship for the next "Row" fundraiser, has put that on hold, she said. Instead, a commitment has been made to Planned Parenthood. "Our firm is a strong believer in social justice and thought this was a move that needed to be made," McDonell said.

Among Komen's other affiliates, there was clear discomfort. The Connecticut branch received scores of supportive emails after expressing frustration about the cutoffs and goodwill toward Planned Parenthood.

All seven Komen affiliates in California, in a joint letter to their congressional delegation, said they were "strongly opposed" to the policy change and were working to overturn it.

In New York, a member of the Komen affiliate's medical advisory board said she would resign if the decision wasn't changed soon. "Komen is a wonderful organization and does tremendous things for women, but this is straying from their mission," said Dr. Kathy Plesser, a radiologist. "It's sad."

The American Association of University Women said it was scrapping plans to offer a Komen Race for the Cure as one of the activities at its upcoming National Conference for College Women Student Leaders.

According to Planned Parenthood, its health centers performed more than 4 million breast exams in the past five years, including nearly 170,000 with Komen grants.

While comments posted on Komen's Facebook page seemed to be mostly critical of the grant decision, Brinker said at her news conference that donations to the charity had increased since Tuesday but declined to give details.

She also said other grant recipients besides Planned Parenthood might be adversely affected by the new criteria about investigations, but she did not identify them.

At the Puget Sound affiliate of Komen, spokesman Jim Clune said some people have threatened to stop donations, but he said he couldn't put a dollar figure on potential losses.

More recently, he said, others have begun expressing support for "the important work" Komen is doing. "We're getting lots of opinions," he said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Carol M. Ostrom contributed to this report. Information from The New York Times also is included.

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