As the backlash grew against the decision by Susan G. Komen for the Curefoundation to cease awarding grants to Planned Parenthood, Komen officials ended two days of silence on Thursday and tried to manage the uproar.
In a conference call with the media, Komen founder and Chief Executive Nancy G. Brinker said the decision was due to policy changes intended to improve how grantees are selected. It had nothing to do with Planned Parenthood's position as an abortion provider, she said.
"This has been a contentious issue," she added of the rift between the two well-known women's health organizations. "Our position has been lost.... Our only mission is to design treatments and cures for this disease and to take care of women in need of services."
But Brinker also suggested that the Komen money might be better spent elsewhere: "You have to be sure you are granting to the right people."
Brinker's explanation came as Komen weathered continuing waves of criticism from lawmakers, women's health advocates and public figures, and as donations poured in to both groups.
In a letter Thursday, a group of 26 Democratic senators, including Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California, urged Brinker to reconsider.
"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.
On Tuesday, Planned Parenthood revealed that 19 of its affiliates would no longer receive grants from the Komen foundation for breast health programs because of revamped criteria barring new grants to groups under local, state or federal investigations. Planned Parenthood is under congressional investigation by Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), who is looking into whether it used federal funding for abortion services, which is not permitted.
Under Komen's new rules, organizations under investigation can't receive new funds until the matter is resolved.
"We've always had the right to cancel contracts," Brinker said.
She added that three Planned Parenthood affiliates, including the one representing Orange and San Bernardino counties, will continue to receive Komen money because they provide services that cannot be replaced through grants to another organization in their area.
Komen, a leading fundraiser for breast cancer research best known for pink ribbons and its annual Race for the Cure, is also taking heat from some of its member groups.
On Thursday, its seven California affiliates released a statement saying they were strongly opposed to the new policy and were working with national headquarters to resolve it:
"Affiliates will not rest until this issue is resolved.... What we have experienced and witnessed over the last two days is an extraordinary level of passion for these important issues to women.... We want to assure all Californians that we will do whatever it takes to do what is right for the health of women and men in California."
Other Komen affiliates posted statements on their Facebook pages, including postings critical of Komen's move ("Please know that we hear you & we appreciate the frustration that many of our Facebook followers are feeling right now.") or supportive of Komen ("Politics has nothing to do with it and never will.... Recent reports about our funding and Planned Parenthood are off base.").
Brinker would not confirm reports that the resignation of Mollie Williams, the foundation's top public health official, was in protest. Williams could not be reached for comment.
The controversy has led to an outpouring of funds to both organizations.
Brinker said Komen's donations had risen 100% since Tuesday, and Planned Parenthood announced that it had already received a large portion of the funds it needed to replace the loss of Komen grants. Among the Planned Parenthood donors was New York MayorMichael R. Bloomberg, who pledged to give $1 for every new $1 donation made to Planned Parenthood, up to $250,000.
Planned Parenthood affiliates will be free to apply for future grants once the organization is no longer under investigation, Brinker said. But in any case, she said, its breast health programs may not be the best use of Komen funds.
Although women can receive clinical breast exams at Planned Parenthood clinics, patients are referred to other medical facilities for mammograms, biopsies and cancer treatment, she noted, referring to this model as "pass-through" services.
"We look at the quality of the grants," Brinker said. "We don't like to do pass-through grants anymore."
Planned Parenthood responded that patients referred out for mammograms or biopsies were still managed by the affiliate's doctors.
"We offer the same kinds of services a patient would be offered going to her private OB-GYN," said Shawn Rhea, a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman.
"I'm sad," said Dr. Susan Love, president of the Santa Monica-based Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, which released a statement decrying the Komen move. "Whether you're pro-choice or pro-life, it doesn't really matter because it's a separate issue. What Planned Parenthood is doing is giving [referrals for] mammograms and [providing] breast exams — helping women who don't have access to that care."
Love's sister-in-law, Tina, 45, visited Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screening five years ago. Worried about a suspicious breast lump, but without health insurance, the Santa Barbara-based independent filmmaker had ignored the mass until it grew larger. The lump turned out to be cancerous.
Tina Love was treated and is now cancer-free. She said she might never have caught the cancer at an early stage had Planned Parenthood services not been available.
"I might have just brushed it off," she said.
Staff writers Amina Khan, Eryn Brown, Jeannine Stein and Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.