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Komen backs off decision, reactions range from shock to elation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 6, 2012 - Local reaction ranging from shock to elation has followed the Susan G. Komen For the Cure Foundation's reversal of a decision to quit funding health services delivered by Planned Parenthood.

The foundation's initial announcement a few days ago to discontinue the funding touched off a renewed debate over abortion. Critics accused Komen of buckling under political pressure. Anti-abortion advocates praised the decision to end funding for Planned Parenthood, saying it was a stand for protecting human life.

But that mixture of praise and outrage reversed itself this morning when Komen announced it would "continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants." Komen added that it would continue to allow "our affiliates to make funding decisions that meet the needs of their communities."

In a press release, the foundation was contrite. "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," Nancy G. Brinker, Komen's chief executive, said in a statement posted on the organization's website.

The reversal is unlikely to end the furor.

"We're a little incredulous," said Patty Skain, executive director of Missouri Right to Life. "It was a kind of major decision they had made. Now they are reversing it. It's a little difficult to believe. We're disappointed."

She said the group would respond by continuing to "educate the public about abortion and the increased risk of breast cancer because of abortion." (A connection between abortion and breast cancer has not been scientifically established.)

Skain added that members would strike Komen from their support list.

"Once again, the pro-life people, myself included, will not be able to support Susan G. Komen. We all want to find a cure for breast cancer, but we can't support an organization that contributes to the destruction of innocent human lives."

Despite repeated efforts, the Beacon was unable to get comments from other anti-abortion proponents, including officials at the Archdiocese of St. Louis and Missouri Roundtable for Life.

A very different reaction to Komen's decision came from Paula Gianino, CEO of Planned Parenthood for the St. Louis region. She disclosed that the local group had in fact applied more than once for funding during the decade and had been turned down. Up to now, there have been comments that the local Komen group had never funded the local Planned Parenthood chapter, but there was no indication that the group had applied for money.

Gianino said, "When Komen first announced funding opportunities several years ago, Planned Parenthood applied in writing like other organizations two years in a row. We were never funded. Then finally we were told (by someone privately) just not to apply in the future because we were not going to get funding."

She said she was willing to disclose this now only because "I am being asked about the history and I will always tell the truth."

Start of update: Gianino said that Planned Parenthood in St. Louis will reapply for money. "We hope that today's decision by Komen will begin a new and closer partnership here in St. Louis. We will once again apply for funding in the new grant cycle to help support the breast-cancer screeening services that we provide for low-income and uninsured women." End of update.

But Gianino also wanted to move on, stressing that supporters of Planned Parenthood should continue to contribute to Komen.

"We are very happy and grateful that Komen has stepped back and reversed its decision because it's the right decision for women in this country. I hope it signals that we will have a much closer relationship with Komen at the local level and nationally because Komen and Planned Parenthood share a mission of saving women's lives."

She also insisted that, contrary to statements from Komen, the initial decision was based on politics.

"This decision today shows that it is not good when extremist groups bully organizations and even elected officials," Gianino said. "I think the groundswell from the American public of outrage -- I've never seen anything like this -- the groundswell of people's anger about the original decision, speaks loud and clear that people are just tired of having politics intrude upon women's health-care services."

She said the national Planned Parenthood organization had received an additional $3 million in donations in response to Komen's initial decision. She said Planned Parenthood centers across the country would use the money to provide additional breast-cancer screening and breast health-education services.

"Locally, I can tell you we've heard from so many people and we are still hearing from them today. I hope people will continue their strong support for Planned Parenthood and will continue their strong support for Komen."

During last June's Race for the Cure, the local Komen unit raised about $3.1 million. It said all the money was used for local services, such as breast-cancer screening by 28 local organizations.

While none of that money went to the local Planned Parenthood organizations, the group noted that nationwide donations from Komen accounted for a relatively small percentage of grants to Planned Parenthood.

According to Planned Parenthood, the Komen funding has covered the cost of nearly 170,000 of the estimated 4 million clinical breast exams performed nationwide at Planned Parenthood centers. The funding also has supported the cost of 6,400 of the 70,000 mammogram referrals by Planned Parenthood. With Komen's latest announcement, such funding apparently will continue.

Funding for the Beacon's health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization that aims to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.