WASHINGTON (AP) - A Republican-led House panel has asked the Planned Parenthood Federation of America to hand over more than a decade's worth of documents in a probe of whether the organization improperly spends public money on abortions.
Democrats and Planned Parenthood supporters say the 90-year-old group is audited regularly and publicly and that the probe is the latest Republican run at shutting it down.
At issue is whether American taxpayers are unwittingly underwriting elective abortions, in violation of federal law. Absolutely not, says Planned Parenthood. But congressional Republicans are not so sure.
Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest provider of abortions and an array of other health services, is at the center of the fight. Republicans portray the organization as primarily focused on performing abortions, and charge that taxpayer funds for family planning and other health care services indirectly subsidized that role. They've launched multiple efforts this year alone to bar federal money from the group as long as it provides abortions. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America - the formal name of the organization - says taxpayer money is strictly separated.
"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 abortions," Rep. Cliff Stearns, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee, wrote in a Sept. 15 letter to Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards.
Due by the end of the month: internal audits of how much Planned Parenthood received and spent in government money from 1998 to 2010. Stearns also requests any state audits of PPFA for the last 20 years that have not been made public, as well as a description for how "segregation between family planning and abortion services is accomplished," and how the practice is monitored for compliance.
"The American taxpayer does not want to be in the business of abortion, and this investigation is an important first step toward ending public funding of the nation's largest abortion provider," said Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, which earlier this year conducted and presented to Stearns' committee its own study on Planned Parenthood.
Democrats say the group's 800-plus health centers nationwide provide an array of services, from screenings for cancer to testing for sexually transmitted diseases. Abortion, they say, is only one of Planned Parenthood's services. The law bars the group from using tax money for the procedure.
They cast Stearns as only the latest Republican to assail women's health services. The group is audited regularly by the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general and state Medicaid programs, and the results are made public, the Democrats said in their response Tuesday.
"These audits have not identified any pattern of misuse of federal funds, illegal activity or other abuse that would justify a broad and invasive congressional investigation," Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Diana DeGette of Colorado wrote.
Planned Parenthood's Richards said in a statement that the investigation was really aimed at "undermining access to care." Nonetheless, the group was responding to Stearns' letter "in a timely manner."
Abortion politics nearly scuttled President Barack Obama's health care overhaul in the final hours of debate last year, and has popped up in the budget fights that have dominated the new, more conservative Congress since January. Since coming to power, the Republican majority in the House has tried to write permanently into law the ban on federal funds to perform abortions, to make it easier for hospitals to refuse abortion cases and to make it more expensive for small businesses to choose insurance plans that cover abortion under Obama's health care act.