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Komen’s decision on Planned Parenthood divides its supporters — and loses some

Some longtime Race for the Cure participants found themselves donating to Planned Parenthood in response — and questioning whether they’d run this year.

In 2007, Suzanne Pittel’s sister and friends walked the 60-mile Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure in her honor. A mortgage broker in Brandon, Minn., located just west of Alexandria, Pittel was undergoing treatment for stage-three breast cancer.

She joined them in 2009 and later years, and has run Komen’s Twin Cities Race for the Cure every year. In addition to a $25 entry fee for each event, each of the 12 women who participate to celebrate with her must raise $2,400 in donations for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the breast cancer advocacy group whose iconic pink ribbons grace everything from spatulas to yogurt.

“I’ve raised quite a bit of money for them,” Pittel said. In return, Komen has been a lifeline.

Pittel is signed up for this spring’s race. “But I don’t know,” she said. “If it’s the fishing opener, I might just go fishing.”

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Yesterday, in the wake of the announcement that Komen had decided to stop funding breast cancer screenings for low-income women performed by Planned Parenthood, Pittel posted a note of outrage to her Facebook wall and wrote to Komen’s Minnesota affiliate, which was referring questions and complaints to the national office.

A social media tsunami

She also made an online donation to Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota. Across the country, countless people did likewise, swept up by a social media tsunami that delivered both the news and the suggestion that making a donation would send a signal.

On Tuesday afternoon, Komen announced that it would not continue to fund clinical breast exams through Planned Parenthood because it had adopted new guidelines prohibiting donations to organizations that are undergoing congressional investigation. Last fall, a committee headed by Florida Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns announced it was looking into Planned Parenthood, whose non-abortion services funding it would desperately like to eliminate.

The twittersphere quickly served up an alternate explanation: In April, Komen got a new senior vice president for public policy, Karen Handel, who ran for governor of Georgia in 2010 on a platform that included the elimination of funding for breast and cervical cancer screenings provided by Planned Parenthood.

Within 24 hours, Planned Parenthood had received some $400,000 in donations from people who share Pittel’s outrage.

Under pressure for some time

Komen has been under pressure from pro-life groups to end its relationship with Planned Parenthood since its inception in 2005. Last year, the Komen Foundation made $680,000 in grants to Planned Parenthood and $580,000 the year before.

According to a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota, none of that money underwrote cancer screenings here. Nationwide, the organization performed 750,000 mammograms; 170,000 of them were paid for by Komen last year.

Locally, Planned Parenthood clinics performed 15,000 breast exams in 2011. Indeed, 95 percent of its work is providing non-abortion reproductive health services to women — and men — at all income levels.

The spokeswoman, Jennifer Aulwes, said no one had contacted Planned Parenthood’s office via any of the old-fashioned routes to say they had been spurred to make a donation. But notes posted on its Facebook page and on GiveMN’s online donation site, Razoo, suggest the taps are on in cyberspace.

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Indeed, yesterday afternoon chatter among new donors propelled Planned Parenthood’s hashtag and #komen onto Twitter’s Minneapolis “trending” list. By late afternoon, the organization’s national offices had waded into the conversation, asking for contributions.

Minneapolis engineer Erica Mauter said she learned about the flap “on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus simultaneously.”

‘In keeping with my values’

Mauter has made pledges to friends who have participated in Komen events in the past, but had never given directly to either organization until yesterday. When a friend tweeted about her gift to Planned Parenthood, Mauter, who is known to her tweeps as @swirlspice, was struck.

“I said, ‘That makes sense,’ so I did, too,” she said. “In thinking and talking about this issue in the last couple of days I realized it is in keeping with my values completely.”

Pittel’s, too, although she knows that some of the members of her support circle are pro-life. While she respects their views, she worries they will assume that Komen’s funding indirectly funded abortion and not consider the fact that it provided cancer screenings to women who otherwise might not have gotten them. 

The educational component

Pittel’s own tumor was not caught by routine mammograms. She discovered it during a self-exam and demanded a biopsy even though her images looked clean.

“I saved my own life because I was persistent about the lump that I had,” she said. The experience has made her something of an evangelical on the value of the educational component of Planned Parenthood’s services. Yesterday was not the first time she has given to it.

“I think Planned Parenthood does an excellent job helping people who do not have the resources to get screened or the awareness to do [exams] themselves,” she said. “It’s really not the luck of the draw.”