WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A decision by Susan G. Komen for the Cure to cut funding for Planned Parenthood erupted into a crisis over abortion rights on Thursday, fueling an angry public debate about the future of the leading breast cancer charity.
The rift between the two top U.S. women's health advocacy groups mobilized grassroots activists and lawmakers in Congress, thrusting Komen into the center of a deeply politicized conflict that some say will hamper its work for years to come.
Nancy Brinker built the group in honor of her sister, Komen, who died of breast cancer in 1980. In a video posted to the organization's website, Brinker denied operating under pressure from groups opposed to the abortion and birth control services that Planned Parenthood provides.
"We will never bow to political pressure," Brinker said. "The scurrilous accusations being hurled at this organization are profoundly hurtful to so many of us."
"But more importantly, they are a dangerous distraction from the work that still remains to be done in ridding the world of breast cancer."
The Komen foundation, known for its pink ribbon symbol and Race for the Cure fundraisers, has collected more than $1.9 billion for breast cancer research and programs. It has affiliates in more than 100 U.S. cities and 50 countries.
Planned Parenthood had received about $700,000 annually from Komen to pay for breast examinations and provide access to mammograms for poor women.
Komen has said its decision reflects a new strategy aimed at using donation money more effectively by eliminating duplicate grants and tightening eligibility rules.
That included barring money to groups under investigation by U.S. authorities. Planned Parenthood is the subject of a probe by U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican who opposes abortion.
The move prompted an outcry on social media sites Facebook and Twitter, where Americans expressed anger that a widely supported cancer charity appeared to have taken sides in one of the nation's most intractable disputes.
"Susan Komen would not give in to bullies or fear. Too bad the foundation bearing her name did," writer Judy Blume, known for her books on girls growing up, said via Twitter.
Democrats in the U.S. Senate urged Komen to reconsider.
"It would be tragic if any woman, let alone thousands of women, lost access to these potentially life-saving screenings because of a politically motivated attack," more than 20 lawmakers said in a letter due to be sent later on Thursday.
Activists on both sides of the abortion debate cited evidence of a political shift within Komen. Abortion rights advocates saw it as part of an evolution of the organization, noting Brinker's 2011 appointment of Republican Karen Handel to a senior policy position with the foundation.
Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, ran unsuccessfully for state governor in 2010 on a platform that called for defunding Planned Parenthood.
Brinker "is overseeing a fundamental transformation of her organization. It has become a political organization. It is no longer an organization whose mission is to advance women's health," said Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women.
Jeanne Monahan of the conservative Christian group, Family Research Council, described some of the pressures Komen faced.
"Groups didn't even know there was a formal relationship between Planned Parenthood and Komen until the last few years, and Komen got a lot of negative feedback about that from people who are right to life," she said.
Philanthropy experts said it will be difficult for Komen to convince people it wasn't "playing politics."
"There's a long-term weakening of the Susan G. Komen brand from this decision," said Melissa Berman, chief executive of nonprofit Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisers, which counsels wealthy donors who give more $200 million a year.
"We would see donors reluctant to be involved with a charity whose decision making gets influenced by short-term pressures and politics, because you would always wonder who's really in charge," she said.
Planned Parenthood, already barred from using federal funds to provide abortions, has seen the U.S. tax dollars it still receives for family aid to poor women come under intensifying Republican scrutiny in Congress.
The group has also come under attack from lawmakers in several states over the past year, including North Carolina, Indiana and Kansas, who have attempted to block state funding.
In Kansas some local prosecutors are pressing criminal charges against Planned Parenthood, alleging it failed to maintain paperwork related to the abortions it provided.
Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York and Anna Yukhananov in Washington; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Xavier Briand