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Komen's Karen Handel quits after funding dispute

/ Source: news services

Karen Handel, an executive with a major U.S. breast-cancer charity has resigned after a dispute over funding for the country's best-known family planning organization and its providing of abortions, according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press. 

Handel, the charity's vice president for public policy, told Komen officials that she supported the move to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood. She said the discussion started before she arrived at the organization and was approved at the highest levels of the charity.

"I am deeply disappointed by the gross mischaracterizations of the strategy, its rationale, and my involvement in it," Handel said in her letter, dated Feb. 7. "I openly acknowledge my role in the matter and continue to believe our decision was the best one for Komen's future and the women we serve."

Handel said in the letter that the now-abandoned policy was fully vetted by the Komen organization. Its board did not raise any objections when it was presented with the proposed policy in November, Handel said.

In a Fox News interview, Handel charged Planned Parenthood with using "vicious attacks" and "coercion" to prevent Komen from setting its own standards.

"It's outrageous," Handel told Fox News. "I resigned because it was clear that all of this had gotten to a point where ... I was too much of a focal point. I really felt I had a responsibility to step aside so they could refocus on their mission."

Handel had supported a decision that Komen announced last week to exclude Planned Parenthood, which provides a range of women's health care services including abortions, from future grants for breast-cancer screenings because it was under government investigation. The charity cited a probe launched by a Florida congressman at the urging of anti-abortion groups.

A longstanding law bans using federal money to pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or to protect the health of the mother.

Komen funds about $700,000 in breast cancer exams and mammography referrals for poor women provided by Planned Parenthood.

Komen insiders have said Handel spent months pushing the plan to shift the organization's grant strategy, leading the board to decide to cut off funding for 17 of the 19 Planned Parenthood affiliates in December.

The breast cancer charity reversed course after its decision created a three-day firestorm of criticism. Members of Congress and Komen affiliates accused the group's national leadership of bending to pressure from anti-abortion activists. Komen's founder and CEO, Nancy Brinker, denied the decision was driven by pressure from anti-abortion groups.

"We have made mistakes in how we have handled recent decisions and take full accountability for what has resulted, but we cannot take our eye off the ball when it comes to our mission," Brinker said in a statement. "To do this effectively, we must learn from what we've done right, what we've done wrong and achieve our goal for the millions of women who rely on us."

Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Andrea Hagelgans declined to comment on the resignation.

Her departure stirred regret among anti-abortion activists.

"The events of the last week show just how ruthless the abortion industry will be to anyone who is perceived as not supporting their agenda," said Kristi Hamrick, a spokeswoman for the anti-abortion group, Americans United for Life.

Abortion advocates said Handel's departure appeared to be an effort to staunch a public relations disaster, and was unlikely to dispel doubts about the organization given Komen's ties with other high-profile political conservatives.

"It's a step in the right direction. But it's not clear to me that they've really changed their policy," said Jodi Jacobson, whose blog is widely followed by women's reproductive rights advocates.

Over the weekend, Komen said George W. Bush's former White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, is working for the charity as a communications consultant. Jane Abraham, general chair of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, also serves as a board director for Komen's advocacy arm.

Until Tuesday, Handel had publicly kept silent about her role in the dispute.

In her letter, she said the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood was long a concern to Komen officials.

"Neither the decision nor the changes themselves were based on anyone's political beliefs or ideology," Handel said in the letter. Rather, both were based on Komen's mission and how to better serve women, as well as a realization of the need to distance Komen from controversy.

According to a source with direct knowledge of decision-making at Komen's headquarters in Dallas, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions, a driving force behind the move was Handel, who was hired by Komen last year as vice president for public policy after losing a campaign for governor in Georgia in which she stressed her anti-abortion views and frequently denounced Planned Parenthood.

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

Handel, a Republican, ran for Georgia governor in 2010, winning an endorsement from former vice presidential candidate and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Handel then lost a primary runoff to former Georgia Congressman Nathan Deal, who won the general election.

Throughout the campaign, Deal accused Handel of being soft on abortion.

Deal repeatedly attacked Handel over a 2005 vote she took while serving on a metro Atlanta county commission to give more than $400,000 to Planned Parenthood, though not for abortion services. The Georgia affiliate of Planned Parenthood said the money went to a downtown clinic for services such as cervical cancer screenings, testing for sexually transmitted diseases and birth controls.

The Komen board's decision retained $250,000 in funding for Planned Parenthood, including the organization's three largest grants to the network of women's health clinics.

More on Komen:

Planned Parenthood repairing Komen ties

Supporters grapple with Komen fracas over funding

Bioethicist: Too little, too late for Komen