Nancy Brinker
Haraz N. Ghanbari  /  AP
Nancy Brinker, founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure faces an escalating backlash over its decision to cut breast-screening grants to Planned Parenthood.
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updated 2/3/2012 5:48:59 PM ET 2012-02-03T22:48:59

Supporters are rallying around the United States' most well-known reproductive health organization after a renowned breast cancer charity decided to cut breast screening grants to the group.

Top leaders of Susan G. Komen for the Cure have denied Planned Parenthood's assertion that the decision was driven by pressure from anti-abortion groups. According to Planned Parenthood, its health centers performed more than 4 million breast exams over the past five years, including nearly 170,000 as a result of Komen grants.

In Washington, 26 U.S. senators — all Democrats except for independent Bernie Sanders — signed a letter calling on Komen to reconsider its decision.

"It would be tragic if any woman — let alone thousands of women — lost access to these potentially lifesaving screenings because of a politically motivated attack," the senators wrote.

Meanwhile, a top official at Komen, Mollie Williams has resigned in protest over the grant cutoff, according to a source. Williams had been Komen's director of community health programs, had resigned in protest over the grant cutoff.

Williams, in an email, said she could not comment on her departure for reasons of professional confidentiality, but she was clear about her views.

"I have dedicated my career to fighting for the rights of the marginalized and underserved," she wrote. "And I believe it would be a mistake for any organization to bow to political pressure and compromise its mission."

As the controversy erupted, donations to Planned Parenthood poured in. Besides $400,000 in smaller donations from 6,000 people, Planned Parenthood is receiving a $250,000 pledge announced Thursday by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to match future donations.

Komen, meanwhile, has been deluged with negative emails and Facebook postings, accusing it of knuckling under to pressure from anti-abortion groups, since The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that the charity was halting grants that Planned Parenthood affiliates used for breast exams and related services. The grants totaled $680,000 last year.

Some of Komen's local affiliates were openly upset, including all seven in California, and at least one top official has quit, reportedly in protest.

"We don't base our funding decisions ... on whether one side or the other will be pleased," said Komen's founder and CEO, Nancy Brinker, depicting the criticism as a mischaracterization of the charity's goals and mission.

Komen has said the decision stemmed from newly adopted criteria barring grants to organizations under investigation — affecting Planned Parenthood because of an inquiry by a Republican congressman acting with encouragement from anti-abortion activists.

A source with direct knowledge of decision-making at Komen's headquarters gave a different account, saying the grant-making criteria were adopted with the deliberate intention of targeting Planned Parenthood. The criteria's impact on Planned Parenthood and its status as the focus of government investigations were highlighted in a memo distributed to Komen affiliates in December.

According to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions, a driving force behind the move was Karen Handel, who was hired by Komen last year as vice president for public policy after losing a campaign for governor in Georgia in which she stressed her anti-abortion views and frequently denounced Planned Parenthood.

Karen Handel
John Bazemore  /  AP
Karen Handel is said to be a driving force behind Komen's decision this week to cut breast-screening grants to Planned Parenthood.

Brinker, in an interview with MSNBC, said Handel didn't have a significant role in the policy change.

Among Komen's affiliates, there were clear signs of discomfort with the decision. All seven Komen affiliates in California, in a joint letter to their congressional delegation, said they were "strongly opposed" to the policy change and were working to overturn it.

"Our commitment to our mission is unwavering," the letter said. "This is a misstep in that journey and ... we will do whatever it takes to do what is right for the health of women and men in California."

The American Association of University Women, in protest over Komen's decision, said it was scrapping plans to offer a Komen Race for the Cure as one of the activities at its upcoming National Conference for College Women Student Leaders.

Though comments posted on Komen's Facebook page seemed to be mostly critical of the grant decision, Brinker said at her news conference that donations to the charity had increased since Tuesday.

She also said there were other organizations receiving Komen grants that might be adversely affected by the new criteria about investigations, but she did not identify them.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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