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Political fallout from birth control fight: A glimmer of good news for Obama?

Under fire from Catholic bishops and others, the Obama administration had to backtrack on contraception and health insurance. But many Catholics differ with the church hierarchy over birth control.

By Staff writer / February 11, 2012

President Barack Obama pauses while announcing the revamp of his contraception policy requiring religious institutions to fully pay for birth control, Friday, Feb. 10, 2012, in the White House press room.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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President Obama may have hoped to dispel the political firestorm raining down on him over contraception and religion with the new White House approach announced Friday. But that never was going to happen.

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Anything that angers social and religious conservatives while annoying a significant portion of his own base does not soon fade, especially in a presidential re-election year.

Still, there may be some beneficial political fallout for Obama as Republican presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich try to outdo each other on this hot-button issue, which they short-hand as the incumbent president’s “war on religion,” leaving Mitt Romney to explain his moderate position on birth control (and even abortion) back when he was Massachusetts governor.

Anything that keeps Republicans fighting, that prolongs the GOP’s nominating process, works to Obama’s benefit.

Then, there’s the divide between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and most Catholics on birth control, back in the spotlight as the result of the controversy, indicating that Obama may be able to keep a good portion of the 54 percent of Catholics whose vote he won in 2008. More on that in a minute.

But for now, as Jonathan Allen at Politico put it, “The battle over contraceptive coverage at religiously affiliated institutions has bound together Republicans of all stripes because it hits core GOP themes: religious liberty, government intrusion, and reproduction politics.”

“Perhaps more important politically,” Allen added, “it has given Republicans something to talk about other than the economy, just when Obama’s gotten a lift from modest gains.”

Under the proposed new rule that Obama announced Friday, religiously affiliated institutions (such as hospitals and universities) will not be required to include free birth control in health insurance plans for female employees.

Instead, insurance companies will be required under the Affordable Care Act to provide contraception to all employees at such institutions free of charge – which may be a distinction without a lot of difference, or as one critic put it “an accounting gimmick.”

Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, calls Obama’s latest move “a first step in the right direction.” Which implies that more steps will be demanded, as Archbishop Dolan puts it, in order to “to guarantee that Americans’ consciences and our religious freedom are not harmed by these regulations."

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