The nation's leading breast cancer charity, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, is halting its partnerships with Planned Parenthood affiliates -- creating a bitter rift, linked to the abortion debate, between two iconic organizations that have assisted millions of women.
The change will mean a cutoff of hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants, mainly for breast exams.
Planned Parenthood says the move results from Komen bowing to pressure from anti-abortion activists. Komen says the key reason is that Planned Parenthood is under investigation in Congress -- a probe launched by a conservative Republican who was urged to act by anti-abortion groups.
The rupture, although not publicly announced as it has unfolded, is wrenching for some of those who are now learning about it and who admire both organizations.
"We're kind of reeling," said Patrick Hurd, who is CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia -- recipient of a 2010 grant from Komen -- and whose wife, Betsi, is a veteran of several Komen fundraising races and is currently battling breast cancer.
"It sounds almost trite, going through this with Betsi, but cancer doesn't care if you're pro-choice, anti-choice, progressive, conservative," Hurd said.
Planned Parenthood said the Komen grants totaled roughly $680,000 last year and $580,000 the year before, going to at least 19 of its affiliates for breast cancer screening and other breast health services.
Komen spokeswoman Leslie Aun said the cutoff results from the charity's newly adopted criteria barring grants to organizations that are under investigation by local, state or federal authorities. According to Komen, this applies to Planned Parenthood because it's the focus of an inquiry launched by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., seeking to determine whether public money was improperly spent on abortions.
Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, has depicted Stearns' probe as politically motivated and said she was dismayed that it had contributed to Komen's decision to halt the grants to affiliates of the federation.
"It's hard to understand how an organization with whom we share a mission of saving women's lives could have bowed to this kind of bullying," Richards told the Associated Press. "It's really hurtful."
Reaction to the news was swift and passionate. On Twitter, it was one of the most discussed topics Tuesday evening.
Two Democrats in Congress -- Sen. Patty Murray of Washington State and Rep. Michael M. Honda of California -- issued statements denouncing Komen's action.
Anti-abortion groups, in contrast, welcomed the news. The Alliance Defense Fund praised Komen "for seeing the contradiction between its lifesaving work and its relationship with an abortionist that has ended millions of lives."
Planned Parenthood has been a perennial target of protests, boycotts and funding cutoffs because of its role as the largest provider of abortions in the United States.
Aun said Komen was not accusing Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing. "We want to maintain a positive relationship with them," she said. "We're not making any judgment."
Richards said Planned Parenthood is intent on raising funds quickly to replace the lost grants so that women in need do not go without breast-screening services.