Revamped birth control policy respects religion: Obama
Published Friday, February 10, 2012 3:35PM EST
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 7:25AM EDT
WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama, grappling with a political firestorm that threatened to consume his administration, unveiled a birth control compromise Friday that he said would both protect religious liberties and ensure that women have access to free contraception.
Capping weeks of growing controversy, Obama announced he was backing off a newly announced requirement for church-affiliated employers to provide free birth control coverage even if it runs counter to their religious beliefs. Instead, workers at such institutions will be able to get free contraception directly from health insurance companies.
The furor has consumed media attention and threatened to undermine Obama's re-election bid just as he was in stride with improving economic news. Political reality forced the White House to come up with a solution to a complex matter must faster than anticipated.
The president's abrupt shift was an attempt to satisfy both sides of a deeply sensitive debate, and most urgently, to end a mounting political nightmare for the White House.
Although the administration had originally given itself more than year to work out the details of the new birth control coverage requirement for religious employers, the president acknowledged that the situation had become untenable and demanded a swift solution.
Congressional Republicans as well as party presidential hopefuls were beating up on Obama relentlessly over the issue, and even Democrats in his own party and liberal groups allied with the Roman Catholic church were defecting.
Liberals are a core constituency in the Democratic Party and Catholics are important swing voters in national elections, switching between Republican and Democratic candidates. In 2008 Obama carried the Catholic vote 54 to 45 per cent against Republican John McCain.
"Religious liberty will be protected and a law that requires free preventative care will not discriminate against women," Obama said in an appearance in the White House briefing room.
"I understand some folks in Washington want to treat this as another political wedge issue. But it shouldn't be. I certainly never saw it that way," Obama said. "This is an issue where people of good will on both sides of the debate have been sorting through some very complicated questions."
Women will still get guaranteed access to birth control without any payment no matter where they work, a provision of Obama's health care law that he insisted must remain. But religious universities and hospitals that see contraception as an unconscionable violation of their faith can refuse to cover it, and insurance companies will then have to step in to do so.
The leader of one Catholic organization and a prominent women's group both expressed initial support for the changes.
"The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed," Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, a trade group representing Catholic hospitals that had fought against the birth control requirement, said in a statement.
Planned Parenthood also backed the revisions, saying the Obama administration was still committed to ensuring all women have access to birth control coverage, no matter where they work.
"We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman's ability to access these critical birth control benefits," Cecile Richards, the women's group president, said.
But the U.S. Conference of Bishops withheld its endorsement, saying it was too early to say if Obama's policy changed had met core concerns of the Catholic church.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat and an ardent support of the original measure, was restrained in her response.
"I appreciate the president's unifying approach as we work to ensure that the American people continue to receive the benefits of health care reform."
By keeping free contraception for employers at religious workplaces -- but providing a different way to do it -- Obama was able to assert he gave no ground on the basic principle of full preventive care that matters most to Obama.
Yet, it also was clear that the president felt he had no choice but to retreat on a three-week-old policy in the face of a fierce political furor that showed no signs of cooling.
Officials said Obama has the legal authority to order insurance companies to provide free contraception coverage directly to workers. He will demand it in a new rule.
Following an intense White House debate that led to the original policy, officials said Obama seriously weighed the concerns over religious liberty, leading to the revamped decision.
But the change just led to more criticism from some of Obama's opponents. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, while not commenting directly on Obama's decision, told a conservative conference in Washington that if elected, "I will reverse every single Obama regulation that attacks our religious liberty and threatens innocent life in this country."
It was just on Jan. 20 that the Obama administration announced that religious-affiliated employers -- outside of churches and houses of worships -- had to cover birth control free of charge as preventative care for women. These hospitals, schools and charities were given an extra year to comply, until August 2013, but that concession failed to satisfy opponents, who responded with outrage.
Catholic cardinals and bishops across the country assailed the policy in Sunday Masses. Republican leaders in Congress promised emergency legislation to overturn Obama's move. The president's rivals in the race for the White House accused him of attacking religion. Prominent lawmakers from Obama's own party began openly deriding the policy.
The sentiment on the other side, though, was also fierce. Women's groups, liberal religious leaders and health advocates pressed Obama not to cave in on the issue.
Under the new policy, religious employers will not be required to offer contraception and will not have to refer their employees to places that provide it. Instead, the employer's insurance company must provide birth control for free in a separate arrangement with workers who want it.
The change will still take affect with an extra year built in, in August 2013.