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Planned Parenthood Issue Haunts Komen's Races


The Susan G. Komen Global Race for the Cure takes place tomorrow here in the nation's capital. It's one of the breast cancer charity's biggest fundraisers. But this year, participation is way down. That follows Komen's controversial decision in February to stop funding Planned Parenthood programs. The decision was quickly reversed, but Komen's supporters worry about the long-term impact, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Thirty-seven thousand people crossed the finish line at last year's Global Race for the Cure, as drummers performed on the National Mall.


FESSLER: But this year, participation's expected to be down about 30 percent, closer to 25,000 people. Komen races in other cities have seen similar results this spring. In Winston-Salem, participation was down 40 percent. In Tucson, it dropped 25 percent. In Seattle, a decline of about a third is expected.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE HONDA: Probably an issue for me is an issue of trust and follow-through.

FESSLER: One of those who won't be at this weekend's DC race is Democratic Congressman Mike Honda of California. His office team last year raised $10,000 for the cause. Honda says Komen does great work, but he wants to be sure that the group fulfills its promise not to let politics influence its decisions, as critics claim it did.

HONDA: I wanted to see whether the Komen group will, in fact, fund groups like Planned Parenthood as a grantee.

FESSLER: Not only this year, but in the future. Andrea Rader, a Komen spokeswoman, acknowledges that some races have suffered, but she says it's difficult to know the long-term impact. She didn't want to go on tape, saying that the group wants to get past the current controversy and focus on fighting breast cancer. Still, some people are worried.

MARIA GOMEZ: We're going to have to make some very hard decisions if we don't get the same amount of money.

FESSLER: Maria Gomez is president and CEO of Mary's Center, which uses Komen funds for breast cancer screening and other support for low-income families in the DC area. They've received grants of up to $100,000 from the annual race. Gomez says without the money, they'll have to cut staff or services.

GOMEZ: We need people to go out there and do this race, and I think Komen has gotten the message that it's really about supporting women to get early treatment and detection.

FESSLER: So Mary's Center will have a team in tomorrow's race. And that's what Komen is banking on, that eventually, support for fighting breast cancer will trump any concerns that people might have that the Planned Parenthood decision was influenced by abortion politics.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What size is that shirt there?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is a small.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Can I get a medium?

FESSLER: That certainly seemed to be the case yesterday for those picking up their T-shirts for the DC race. Michelle Fulton of Manassas, Virginia will participate with her eight-year-old twin sons.

MICHELLE FULTON: My grandmother passed away from breast cancer when I was just two months old. My mother in law had it, but is a survivor. So we've got it in our family, and we just think it's a great cause.

FESSLER: Kimberly McKinney Willis of Gaithersburg, Maryland is herself a breast cancer survivor. She's leading a team for her company.

KIMBERLY MCKINNEY WILLIS: So we have approximately 16 people participating this year. Each year, it has increased. And so we think it's a worthwhile cause.

FESSLER: Still, she says, fundraising has suffered. They raised about $800, half of what they raised last year.

WILLIS: And there were a few people this year who chose not to participate because of the controversy.

FESSLER: But for her, it wasn't an issue. One of her teammates said the same, adding that she'd do the race again in a heartbeat.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.