ATLANTA — The vice president of public policy for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure resigned Tuesday, saying the breast cancer charity should have stood by its politically explosive decision to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood.
Karen Handel, 49, a Republican who opposed abortion as a candidate for Georgia governor in 2010, said she was actively engaged in efforts to cut off the grants and said the reversal hurt the charity's core mission.
"I am deeply disappointed by the gross mischaracterizations of the strategy, its rationale, and my involvement in it," Handel said in her resignation letter. "I openly acknowledge my role in the matter and continue to believe our decision was the best one for Komen's future and the women we serve."
The grants, totaling $680,000 last year, went to breast-screening services offered by Planned Parenthood, which provides a range of women's health care services including abortions.
Handel's role has been the focus of intense speculation, but she has not commented publicly until now. In her resignation letter and in comments to reporters Tuesday, Handel said she had supported the initial decision to pull funding and that the policy change was thoroughly vetted at every level within the organization.
"Neither the decision nor the changes themselves were based on anyone's political beliefs or ideology," Handel said in her resignation letter. "Rather, both were based on Komen's mission and how to better serve women, as well as a realization of the need to distance Komen from controversy."
Handel said the discussion had started before she arrived at the organization last year. She said the charity was concerned that some Roman Catholic Dioceses had encouraged believers not to give to Komen because it supported Planned Parenthood.
"I was tasked with identifying options that would allow us to move to neutral ground about this so we weren't on either side of you know, pro-life, pro-choice," Handel said.
Under criteria developed by Komen during Handel's tenure, Planned Parenthood would have been disqualified from future grants because it was under a congressional investigation launched by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, at the urging of anti-abortion activists.
Stearns opened the investigation to determine if Planned Parenthood improperly spent public money on abortions.
A long-standing law bans using federal money to pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or to protect the health of the mother.
Planned Parenthood says its taxpayer money is strictly separated.
Komen, the nation's largest breast-cancer charity, reversed course after its decision ignited three days of intense criticism. Members of Congress and Komen affiliates accused the group's national leadership of bending to pressure from anti-abortion activists.
Komen founder and CEO Nancy G. Brinker, 65, said she accepted Handel's resignation and wished her well.
"We have made mistakes in how we have handled recent decisions and take full accountability for what has resulted, but we cannot take our eye off the ball when it comes to our mission," Brinker said in a statement.
Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Andrea Hagelgans declined to comment.
Handel ran for governor of Georgia in 2010. She received an endorsement from former vice presidential candidate and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. She lost the GOP nomination by about 2,500 votes in a runoff with Georgia Rep. Nathan Deal, who won the general election.
Throughout the campaign, Deal accused Handel of being soft on abortion.
He repeatedly attacked her over a 2005 vote she took while serving on a metro Atlanta county commission to give more than $400,000 to Planned Parenthood, though not for abortion services. The Georgia affiliate of Planned Parenthood said the money went to a downtown clinic for services such as cervical cancer screenings, testing for sexually transmitted diseases and birth control.
Anti-abortion activists in Georgia praised Handel's decision.
"I commend her for it," said Daniel Becker, president of the Georgia Right to Life.
Although Komen reversed its decision Friday, criticism of the organization continued and included a Twitter campaign started on Super Bowl Sunday called #takebackthepink aimed at pointing people to other ways to support breast cancer research.
Members of MoveOn.Org delivered petitions, signed by nearly 850,000 people, on Tuesday afternoon at Komen's headquarters in Dallas calling on the organization to continue to fund Planned Parenthood.
Asked in an interview Tuesday about her political aspirations, Handel hedged, saying: "I learned a long time ago, don't try to predict the future." She refused to comment on whether her resignation would help her standing with anti-abortion groups.
Information from the New York Times and Dallas Morning News was used in this report.