By David Morgan
WASHINGTON, Feb 7 (Reuters) - A senior executive of breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure resigned on Tuesday, a week after the group became the target of a public furor for cutting funding to women's health organization, Planned Parenthood.
Karen Handel, a Republican who once ran for governor of Georgia on a platform calling for the defunding of Planned Parenthood, stepped down from her role as the charity's senior vice president for public policy and chief lobbyist, the organization said on Tuesday.
"I have known Karen for many years and we both share a common commitment to our organization's lifelong mission, which must always remain our sole focus," Komen founder Nancy Brinker said in a statement. "I wish her the best in future endeavors."
Planned Parenthood, a leading provider of birth control, abortion and other women's health services, had no comment.
Komen's move last week caused an uproar among supporters who also back Planned Parenthood. Komen reversed the decision on Friday.
Many had accused Komen of initially bowing to political pressure from anti-abortion groups who want to cut off all funds to Planned Parenthood. The charity says it had been guided by a new policy to avoid funding organizations under investigation by authorities.
In a Fox News interview, Handel charged Planned Parenthood with using "vicious attacks" and "coercion" to prevent Komen from setting its own standards. "It's outrageous," said Handel, whose appointment to Komen's leadership last April raised the hackles of pro-abortion activists.
"I resigned because it was clear that all of this had gotten to a point where ... I was too much of a focal point," Handel added. "I really felt I had a responsibility to step aside so they could refocus on their mission."
In her resignation letter to Brinker, Handel acknowledged her role in developing the strategy but denied it was based on political ideology, saying: "Our decision was the best one for Komen's future and the women we serve."
Komen insiders say Handel spent months pushing the plan to shift the organization's grant strategy, leading the board to decide to cut off funding for 17 of the 19 Planned Parenthood affiliates in December.
PUBLIC RELATIONS DISASTER
Her departure stirred regret among anti-abortion activists, who blamed the latest development on the news media and Planned Parenthood.
"The events of the last week show just how ruthless the abortion industry will be to anyone who is perceived as not supporting their agenda," said Kristi Hamrick, a spokeswoman for the anti-abortion group, Americans United for Life.
Abortion advocates said Handel's departure appeared to be a short-term effort to staunch a public relations disaster and was unlikely to dispel lingering doubts about the organization given Komen's ties with other high-profile political conservatives.
Over the weekend, Komen said Republican President George W. Bush's former White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, is working for the charity as a communications consultant. Jane Abraham, general chair of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, also serves as a board director for Komen's advocacy arm.
Handel's departure is "a step in the right direction. But it's not clear to me that they've really changed their policy," said Jodi Jacobson, whose blog RHRealityCheck.org is widely followed by women's reproductive rights advocates.
The overall negative tone of Twitter messages about Komen showed no sign of improving, according to the Pew Research Center. Days after the charity reversed course, Pew said the share of critical Twitter traffic was unchanged at 64 percent.
Some of Planned Parenthood's allies sought to keep the controversy alive. MoveOn.org, CREDO and UltraViolet marked Handel's fate with a small protest outside Komen headquarters in Dallas, where demonstrators said they wanted to encourage the charity to continue funding Planned Parenthood.
The progressive activist group, CREDO, and UltraViolet, an online community opposed to sexism, claimed credit for a joint petition campaign that collected tens of thousands of signatures calling for Handel's resignation.
Planned Parenthood receives about $700,000 a year in Komen donations for breast cancer exams and mammography referrals for poor women.
But it ran into trouble with the altered Komen strategy because Planned Parenthood is the subject of an investigation by Republican Representative Cliff Stearns, who hopes to determine whether federal tax money funds Planned Parenthood abortions.
Brinker, who founded Komen in 1982 to honor her sister Susan, who died of breast cancer, cast the controversy as a learning experience.
"We have made mistakes," she said on Tuesday. "We must learn from what we've done right, what we've done wrong and achieve our goal for the millions of women who rely on us."
(Additional reporting by Marice Richter in Dallas; editing by Bill Trott and Todd Eastham)