Meet Jon Ossoff's Republican opponent: She made her name destroying the reputation of Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure

Georgia GOP candidate's forceful anti-choice views led the breast cancer charity into a notorious PR disaster

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published April 20, 2017 8:59AM (EDT)

Karen Handel; Jon Ossoff   (AP/David Goldman/John Bazemore)
Karen Handel; Jon Ossoff (AP/David Goldman/John Bazemore)

All eyes, in the world of American politics anyway, were on the primary election held Tuesday in Georgia's 6th Congressional District. Democratic favorite Jon Ossoff fell just slightly short, receiving 48 percent of the vote instead of the 50 percent-plus he needed to win the seat left open by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. He will have  another chance on June 20 in a runoff election against Republican Karen Handel, who came in second with 20 percent of the vote.

Handel has a good chance at consolidating the Republican vote, which had been split between multiple contenders in the primary, and winning the traditionally conservative district. But there is one thing that Ossoff has going for him: The last time Handel was in the national spotlight, she was making a fool out of herself and her then-employer, Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.

In January 2012, the Komen foundation, as it's typically called, quietly announced that it was terminating a $700,000 grant made to a number of Planned Parenthood clinics to fund mammograms and other breast cancer-related services. This was less than a year after Republicans, led by then-congressman Mike Pence, used the threat of a government shutdown to bar Medicaid patients from using Planned Parenthood services. Suspicions immediately arose in the women's health care world that Komen was responding to political pressure from conservative Christians who wished to stigmatize Planned Parenthood.

The entire incident was a PR nightmare for the Komen foundation. At first the organization denied that the move had been political, claiming that it was a reaction to an ethics investigation of Planned Parenthood launched by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla. That excuse didn't hold water because, like every other Republican "investigation" of Planned Parenthood, Stearns' effort was an empty political exercise motivated by a desire to harass the women's health organization, with no sincere concerns about ethics violations.

It was quickly revealed, moreover, that those initial suspicions had been right and that the Komen move was political in nature.

"[T]hree sources with direct knowledge of the Komen decision-making process told me that the rule was adopted in order to create an excuse to cut off Planned Parenthood," reported Jeffery Goldberg at the Atlantic. "The decision to create a rule that would cut funding to Planned Parenthood, according to these sources, was driven by the organization's new senior vice president for public policy, Karen Handel, a former gubernatorial candidate from Georgia who is staunchly anti-abortion and who has said that since she is 'pro-life, I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood.'"

Anonymous sources from the Komen foundation confirmed that Handel's reasoning was purely political and that the "investigations" excuse was explicitly concocted as a cover story. The furor caused the Komen foundation to backpedal furiously and reinstate the grants in a matter of days. Handel then resigned.

At the time, Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times called Komen's actions "one of the great PR faux pas of the decade."

Planned Parenthood is not going to let Georgia voters forget the role that Handel played in this entire travesty.

"Karen Handel failed spectacularly as a Komen executive and would fail again at representing Georgians," said Dawn Laguens, the executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, in a statement emailed to Salon. "Blocking access to care at Planned Parenthood is extremely unpopular and Handel is out of touch with the majority."

To understand how Handel stumbled so badly, it helps to understand the anti-choice movement's tortured history around the topic of breast cancer. Since the 1990s, anti-choice activists and politicians have been pushing the false claim that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. Five states even require doctors to say so to patients, even though giving false information like that is a violation of medical ethics.

Multiple medical organizations have fought back. The American Cancer Society, the U.S. National Cancer Institute and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have all been clear that there's no demonstrated link between abortion and breast cancer. In 2011, just a few months before the Planned Parenthood catastrophe, the Komen foundation also released a statement compiling evidence that shows abortion does not cause breast cancer.

The anti-choice community went ballistic. Breanne Howe of Life News even floated an elaborate conspiracy theory claiming that Planned Parenthood was "harvesting baby body parts for money" and selling them to researchers who "may hold the key to a possible cure for cancer." It is true that Planned Parenthood lets women who have abortions donate fetal tissue for research purposes — but it is never sold. Howe's anger at those researching a cure for cancer is the kind of thing that makes sense only in anti-choice circles, where death itself is considered preferable to a world where women can have sex without being punished for it.

That the myth about a connection between abortion and breast cancer persists despite the scientific evidence against it is a symptom of the magical and sex-negative thinking that dominates the anti-choice movement. There's something downright medieval about imagining that breast cancer is God's punishment for an unchaste woman. In fact, it's just one of the many ways that fundamentalist Christians frame disease as a punishment for sexual sin. HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases tend to be viewed in the same way, which is why Christian conservatives dismiss the effectiveness of condoms in warding off these diseases, in much the same way they dismiss the science that disproves an abortion-breast cancer link.

The Georgia special election is widely seen as a referendum on President Donald Trump, but it's also a referendum on the anti-science, anti-sex, anti-woman Christian conservatism that the Republican Party continues to peddle, presented by Vice President Pence and Handel herself. Handel is someone who blew up her employer's reputation in order to pander to the Christian fundamentalists who see breast cancer as the "wages of sin" coming to a woman who chooses abortion. There's little doubt that Handel will behave just as irresponsibly if she wins a seat in Congress.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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