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By Richard Cowan and Megan Cassella

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senate Republicans seeking to cut all funding to reproductive health group Planned Parenthood over the alleged sale of aborted fetal tissue offered on Wednesday to divert the money to other providers of women’s health.

The Republican plan to take $500 million a year from Planned Parenthood and give it to the likes of hospitals and community health centers was criticized by family planning experts who said it showed a lack of understanding of how women’s health services work.

Long a target of conservatives, Planned Parenthood has come under increasing scrutiny in recent weeks due to secretly recorded videos about its role in supplying aborted fetal tissue for medical research.

Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, a Republican, introduced a bill to defund the organization which is likely to be voted on early next week.

The bill “would ensure taxpayer dollars for women’s health are spent on women’s health, not a scandal-plagued political lobbying giant,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

Anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress has released a series of videos that it says show Planned Parenthood staff negotiating prices as they try to sell fetal material from abortions for profit.

The healthcare organization says it broke no laws, as abortion providers are allowed to charge costs to cover expenses associated with fetal tissue donation.

Republicans in the Senate might not have enough support from Democrats to even allow debate on the bill to formally begin, but a simmering fight over Planned Parenthood might become one of the flashpoints that sets off a government shutdown in the fall.

Ernst envisages diverting Planned Parenthood’s funding to “other eligible entities” such as county health departments, community health centers, hospitals and physicians’ offices.

Republicans have been gunning for the group for years, but do not want to be seen as anti-women with the 2016 presidential election approaching.

The National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, which represents family-planning centers serving low-income and uninsured patients, said other health centers could not fill the gap left by cutting money to Planned Parenthood.

“In many communities, there are not other health care providers that would be equipped to fill the void created by the prohibition of funding for a qualified, trusted family planning provider,” the group’s head, Clare Coleman, said in a statement.

A George Washington University study in 2012 of the possible effects in Texas of defunding Planned Parenthood showed that tens of thousands of low-income women could lose access to affordable family planning services.

(Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Tom Brown)

Photo: The Planned Parenthood logo is pictured outside a clinic in Boston, Massachusetts, June 27, 2014. REUTERS/Dominick Reuter  

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