House Republicans have begun an investigation into Planned Parenthood's use of federal funds, questioning whether the national network of abortion providers has proper checks in place to prevent violations of federal law.
Democrats and Planned Parenthood itself have blasted the investigation as a partisan move designed not only to score political points but also to curtail health care for women.
The investigation, announced by Rep. Cliff Stearns, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee's investigation subcommittee, in a letter earlier this month to Planned Parenthood Federation of America, asks for audits and other information about PPFA's financing.
Mr. Stearns specifically asked for information on how the organization segregates money to ensure federal funds don't pay for abortions.
"The committee has questions about the policies in place and actions undertaken by PPFA and its affiliates relating to its use of federal funding and its compliance with federal restrictions on the funding of abortion," Mr. Stearns, Florida Republican, wrote.
Under federal law, clinics that perform abortions can obtain federal money for health and contraceptive services but are not allowed to spend any of that money on abortions except in rare cases.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, objected to the investigation in his own letter Tuesday, saying the GOP was trying to "harass and shut down an organization simply because Republicans disagree with the work that it does."
In the letter Mr. Waxman and Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, the top Democrat on the investigative panel, said the request for documents was too broad and said federal and state inspectors already audit Planned Parenthood regularly and have not found a pattern of abuse.
Planned Parenthood has been the target of pro-life activists, who have used hidden-camera sting operations and recorded phone calls to capture apparent wrongdoing at clinics. Some clinic employees have been fired for their actions caught on tape, which include seeming to condone teenage prostitution.
In the wake of these recurring sting operations, House Republicans have tried several times to strip all federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
The funding was one of the last items of contention earlier this year when President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner were trying to reach a deal to avert a government shutdown.
Mr. Obama rejected the efforts, and Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican, eventually withdrew his demand, settling instead for a restriction on how Washington, D.C., taxpayer funds are used to pay for abortions.
Planned Parenthood reported $1.1 billion in revenue from July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2009, of which $363.2 million was from federal, state or local grants and contracts. All of that money went to local affiliates.
The federation's clinics account for about a quarter of abortions in the U.S.
In a statement Tuesday, Cecile Richards, president of PPFA, said her organization is trusted by millions of women for basic health care including cancer screenings, annual exams and tests for sexually transmitted diseases.
"This politically motivated investigation is a continuation of the efforts of earlier this year to undermine Planned Parenthood, and more disturbingly, women's access to the primary and preventive care they need," she said.
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