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What Komen Affair Means for November

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The blowup at Susan G. Komen for the Cure set off a political alarm that Republicans dare not ignore. The leading breast cancer group, Komen tried playing Republican-base politics by cutting its funding to Planned Parenthood for breast-health services. The sisterhood and its allies exploded, and Komen reversed course with abject apologies.

"I have to believe that the Republican Party is noticing what just happened in a matter of 24 hours," Kellie Ferguson told me. Ferguson is executive director of a group called the Republican Majority for Choice. "Our members were outraged," she said.

As the name suggests, the Republican Majority for Choice supports women's reproductive rights, including the availability of abortion. While polls show more Republicans opposed to abortion rights than for them, the gap between the two groups is not so wide as the party's conversation suggests. When framed as an individual's decision and not the government's, Ferguson says, well over half of Republicans side with her group's view.

Nationally, 37 percent of Americans say abortion should be generally available, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll taken last month. Another 37 percent want it available under stricter limits. That makes 74 percent in favor of some basic right to abortion.

The Republican debates have largely ignored the majority opinion, but the party should not misread the broader public's quiet as lack of interest. To backers of reproductive rights, nothing real was happening. When they think something real is happening, sirens go off. The Komen affair was a perfect example.

Few women who supported Komen's work knew that its founder is a prominent Republican donor. Nor did they care until the group's leadership insanely thought it could cut off funding for Planned Parenthood's breast cancer screenings without severe consequences.

Social conservatives have long dogged Planned Parenthood for offering abortion, which accounts for 3 percent of its services. A year ago, House Republicans voted to stop all federal funding of Planned Parenthood -- even though it's been shown time and again that Planned Parenthood uses no federal funds for abortion.

Widespread contempt greeted Komen's explanation that it cut off Planned Parenthood following a House investigation launched by Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican. Then came the revelation that Komen's new senior vice president for public policy was Karen Handel, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for Georgia governor long hostile to Planned Parenthood.

What on earth were Komen's leaders thinking? While Planned Parenthood may be reviled in the tight quarters of the Republican base, it is respected, if not beloved, by most American women. And it remains the last resort for many poor women needing birth control.

Which brings us to the Republican candidates' attacks on President Obama for insisting that Catholic organizations include birth control in their employees' health plans. This is a tricky subject. Many who disagree with the church over birth control feel nonetheless that Catholic groups have a right to deny that service as a matter of religious conscience.

The principle on the other side, though, is that women have a right to basic health services, and birth control is pretty basic. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Catholic women ignore the church's position and use birth control.

So what many hear in the Republican campaign is a general piling-on against women's reproductive choices. As Ferguson put it, "When you start to dig a little deeper, some of these candidates are crossing the line over the choice of abortion debate into the birth control debate."

The Komen affair showed how fast and furiously the sisterhood will respond to a perceived attack on reproductive rights. Imagine if something similar happened a week before the November election.

COPYRIGHT 2012 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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