The Komen Foundation seemed to be caught off guard by the strong response to its decision to defund Planned Parenthood. The former executive Karen Handel told Fox News upon her resignation that Planned Parenthood had made the matter “political.” Meanwhile, an anonymous Komen source told the Huffington Post they’d been caught off-guard by Planned Parenthood’s “incredibly sophisticated” operation.
It should not have come as a shock. Planned Parenthood is no stranger to such controversies. TPM spoke with two former Planned Parenthood presidents about why the women’s health group had chosen to fight back, and to fight hard.
Both former presidents drew important parallels between the Komen situation today and a similar incident over 20 years ago with AT&T. In 1990, AT&T announced its charitable foundation would end a 25 year-old tradition of giving Planned Parenthood $50,000 annually, which funded teen pregnancy prevention programs. Still, AT&T wanted to distance itself from the association with abortion and end the pressure it was receiving from pro-life activists.
With AT&T’s decision to cut off funding, Planned Parenthood faced a set of problems beyond an immediate loss in funding. First, the fact that the company pulled the funding sent an encouraging signal to anti-abortion groups that their pressure tactics were working. Second, AT&T’s decision provided cover to other companies feeling similar heat from activists. The Komen incident today raises those same concerns.
When AT&T decided to cut its funding, Planned Parenthood’s president, Faye Wattleton, asked them to simply do so quietly. “I requested that they do so in a manner that would not encourage other corporations to back down,” Wattleton told TPM, “that would not empower the anti-choice organizations.” Instead, AT&T went public, and as Wattleton had warned AT&T over the phone, Planned Parenthood retaliated.
The women’s health group launched a national campaign, running ads in major newspapers with the headline “Caving to extremists, AT&T hangs up on Planned Parenthood.” Planned Parenthood received an outpouring of support and AT&T had to battle a public relations crisis similar to what the Komen Foundation faces now.
“I’m stunned by the similarities 20 years later with the two incidents in terms of the high profile withdraw of funding and the public response,” said Wattleton, who served as president from 1978-1992.
For all the turmoil created, however, the funding never returned. Wattleton said they were extremely close to getting AT&T’s shareholders to vote on the issue, but the incident came at the end of her tenure as president and pressure on AT&T eventually subsided. The AT&T incident is not unique; as Wattleton stresses, it was one of many events during her time at Planned Parenthood. Feldt says she saw corporate funding decline during her tenure.
Even though Komen now says it will re-consider Planned Parenthood for future grants, it’s possible that money never will return. The AT&T fallout shows why Planned Parenthood pushed back, and likely will continue to.
“If you go to kill the king, the king must die,” says Gloria Feldt, who served as president of Planned Parenthood from 1996-2005, on the impact of the AT&T decision, “because if he doesn’t, you will.” It’s imperative for Planned Parenthood to show that it’s either too strong to be touched or at least that it can only be abandoned with significant consequences. In reference to Komen, Feldt says, “Planned Parenthood has to play really hardball or else, I guarantee you, there will be no funding from Komen in a few years.” Over the past week, Planned Parenthood has emerged strong. But as Feldt warns, “you may win a battle, but you can lose the war too.”
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.