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Rep. Stearns (Associated Press/Photo by Harry Hamburg)

Asking questions

Abortion | A House Republican launches a formal investigation of Planned Parenthood

WASHINGTON-House Republicans have begun a deeper and more formal investigation into the activities of top abortion provider Planned Parenthood, while Democrats, rising to the abortion provider's defense, are calling this oversight politically motivated.

Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Investigations, sent Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) a six-page letter on Sept. 15 requesting more than a decade of documents that would allow lawmakers to determine whether the group is illegally using federal funds to pay for abortions.

"The committee has questions about 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," wrote Stearns.

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Federal law prohibits federal funds from being used for abortions.

Stearns also asks Planned Parenthood to hand over internal audits from 1998 to 2010, unreleased external audits from the last 20 years, and documents that outline the organization's billing practices. Beyond examining how Planned Parenthood segregates its family planning and abortion services, the congressional committee also will investigate other alleged abuses such as failing to report cases of statutory rape and sex trafficking.

Democrats quickly went on the defensive to protect Planned Parenthood. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman and chair of the Democratic National Committee, called the investigation a "political witch hunt."

"The scope and nature of this investigation is unprecedented, invasive, and the Big Brother equivalent of modern day denial-of-service attack," she said.

Two senior Democrats, Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Diana DeGette of Colorado, sent a letter to Stearns on Sept. 27 arguing that the investigation singles out Planned Parenthood as "part of a Republican vendetta."

Waxman, in 2006, conducted his own investigation of pro-life pregnancy care centers, claiming that these centers provided "false and misleading information" on abortion's mental health repercussions and on the links between abortion and both breast cancer and fertility. Pro-life groups discounted Waxman's report.

But in his recent letter, Waxman now complains that Republicans are doing the same thing to the abortion provider that he did to the pro-life pregnancy centers five years ago-using the chairmanship of a congressional committee to make a "broad and invasive congressional investigation."

"We are committed to strong congressional oversight," Waxman's letter continued. "But we are opposed to investigations that appear to be designed to harass and shut down an organization simply because Republicans disagree with the work that it does."

Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion provider, already has used this newest congressional investigation as a fundraising tool. In an email to supporters, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards wrote that Republicans are trying to harasses and intimidate the organization.

"I want to be crystal clear: We are not afraid of Rep. Stearns and his baseless demands," Richards wrote. "This is about a pattern of politically motivated attacks designed to eliminate Planned Parenthood once and for all."

Richards asked for letters from across the nation to show Stearns "how many of us are unwilling to stand by quietly while he and his anti-choice, anti-women's health buddies keep hammering at Planned Parenthood."

Planned Parenthood receives about $350 million annually from taxpayers. Amid growing doubts concerning the group's ability to keep those federal funds separate from its abortion services, the Republican-led House in February approved legislation to bar Planned Parenthood from receiving additional federal funds. But the Democrat-led Senate removed the amendment in a 2011 spending bill before passing the larger package into law.

This newest investigation represents the next step for Republicans who fear that, at the very least, this federal support allows Planned Parenthood to divert more of its own direct contributions toward abortions.

"We strongly believe that as Congress and the American people learn more abut Planned Parenthood, they will see the urgency in defunding them immediately of the hundreds of millions of tax dollars they receive every year," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, in a statement.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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