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Health chief defends Planned Parenthood amid calls to defund

Health chief defends Planned Parenthood amid calls to defund
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President Obama’s top healthcare official defended federal funding for Planned Parenthood at a hearing on Tuesday as Republicans zeroed in on cutting off its money.

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell focused her comments on how the federal funding for Planned Parenthood provides mammograms and other services for women.

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“What I think is important is that our HHS funding is focused on issues of preventative care for women, things like mammograms and cancer prevention screenings,” Burwell told the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

“We do not fund abortion,” she added, though Burwell noted there are some exceptions to the Hyde Amendment, a law that prohibits federal funding of abortion.

Planned Parenthood has often been a GOP target, but the political storm surrounding the nonprofit has reacheda  fever pitch following the release of a series of undercover videos showing officials candidly discussing the donation of fetal tissue for medical research.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellSchumer calls for Senate probe into Russian interference Senate passes stopgap funding bill, averting shutdown Senate advances funding measure, avoiding shutdown MORE (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that the chamber will vote to cut off funding for the organization before leaving next week for the August recess. 

Lawmakers, including a group of 49 senators last week, have called on HHS to investigate Planned Parenthood.

“I would like some commitment from you here today on when your department will conduct an investigation on this very, very serious matter,” Rep. Rick Allen (R-Ga.) said Tuesday.

Burwell resisted those calls, deferring to the Department of Justice (DOJ).

She noted that Attorney General Loretta Lynch has said that Justice is conducting a review.

Planned Parenthood had apologized for an official’s “tone and statements” in the first video but said it has broken no laws and argued that the released videos had been heavily edited to inflict political pain on the organization.

Even then, Planned Parenthood said officials in the videos made it clear they were looking for legal compensation for expenses, not profit. 

Still, the videos inflicted a toll on the group. It has turned to the public relations firm SKDKnickerbocker to help in its defense. The firm sent a memo on Monday night that discouraged the media from covering the videos. 

“The extremists who entered Planned Parenthood labs under false pretenses violated research protocol, and, worse, violated the privacy of patients involved,” the memo stated. “Those patients’ privacy should not be further violated by having this footage shared by the media.”

Most Democrats have come to the defense of Planned Parenthood.

On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidReid: Comey should be investigated in wake of Russia report Spokesman: NY Times ignored Reid's comments in pre-election story on Russia Senate passes dozens of bills on way out of town MORE (D-Nev.) denounced Republican efforts to defund the group as “an attack on women’s health.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has said that the group’s officers “subscribe and implement the highest ethical standards in carrying out their operations.”

Other Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have gone even further, calling for the DOJ to investigate the group behind the videos, the Center for Medical Progress. 

Burwell, an official who has been complimented by Republicans in Congress, sought to acknowledge the strong feelings about Planned Parenthood without answering specific questions.

She said that she had not seen the undercover videos but had read about them. 

“This is an important issue that people have passion deeply on both sides of the issue,” she said.

Burwell returned to that line in declining to directly answer a question from Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) about whether she believed “personally that the harvesting of infant body parts [is] moral?”

Planned Parenthood itself looked to bolster its defense on Tuesday with the release of a poll it commissioned, in which it found that 63 percent of voters oppose efforts to defund the organization. 

“Today’s poll shows much of what we already knew: That defunding Planned Parenthood is a losing proposition not just for the millions of men and women who come through Planned Parenthood’s doors every day, but also with voters who don’t want to see their politicians focused on restricting lifesaving care,” Cecile Richards, the group’s president, said in a statement. 

Sarah Ferris contributed. 

This story was updated at 7:55 p.m.