NEW YORK — From its defiant origins in 1916, Planned Parenthood has not shied away from controversy — fighting to legalize birth control, offering candid sex education to adolescents, evolving into America's largest provider of abortion.
Its foes have been relentless, and it now faces some of the most withering attacks of its history. A bill in Congress would strip the organization of federal family-planning grants and a series of covertly taped videos seek to depict some Planned Parenthood staff as willing to assist sex traffickers.
On one side, there are prominent conservatives suggesting that Planned Parenthood may be a criminal enterprise.
On the other, Planned Parenthood leaders and allies are seizing the moment to rally support, saying the ultimate target of the attacks is the ability of American women to get the reproductive health services they desire.
"We've been here for the past 95 years, and we'll be here for the next 95," Planned Parenthood's president, Cecile Richards, said.
Through its affiliates, Planned Parenthood operates more than 800 clinics and health centers across the country, serving more than 3 million patients a year.
A half-dozen of those clinics — in New Jersey, New York and Virginia — figure in the undercover videos released over the past two weeks by Live Action, a California-based antiabortion group. The videos show a man posing as a pimp and a woman posing as a prostitute seeking health services for underage sex workers.
Planned Parenthood fired one clinic manager in New Jersey who offered advice to the visitors, but otherwise says its staff responded professionally and reported the visits to their superiors.
Planned Parenthood's national office notified the FBI before any videos were released and accused Live Action of resorting to deceptive "dirty tricks." It also announced a nationwide retraining program to ensure that clinic staffers were familiar with rules about reporting possible danger to minors.
While much about the videos is in dispute, they provided fresh ammunition for antiabortion activists promoting a bill introduced by Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., that would deny federal family-planning funds to any organization that performs abortions. Pence makes clear that Planned Parenthood is his target; it would lose more than $70 million in annual funding.
By law, federal funds may not be used directly for abortions. But Pence argues that the grants, by covering overhead and operational costs, free up other money to provide abortions.
Abortions account for only a small fraction of the services provided by Planned Parenthood — mainly providing contraception, screening for cancer and testing for sexually transmitted diseases. Many of the clients are low-income women with few other options for non-emergency health care.
Richards said Planned Parenthood, with a $1 billion annual budget, could survive the loss of the federal grants but would be forced to close some clinics and serve fewer people. "This would roll back decades of progress for women's health care," she said in a telephone interview.
Planned Parenthood dates its beginnings to 1916 when Margaret Sanger, her sister and a friend opened America's first birth control clinic in Brooklyn.