In an effort to quell the furor among religious employers over mandatory birth-control coverage, President Obama announced a change to his administration’s policy Friday.
Under the proposed new rule, religiously affiliated institutions will not be required to include free birth control in health insurance plans for female employees or to refer them to outside organizations for birth control. Instead, insurers will be required to provide contraception to all employees free of charge.
The administration had originally intended to spend a year working out an accommodation with religious groups. But the uproar condensed the process to a couple of weeks. The goal was “to find an equitable solution that protects religious liberty and ensures that every woman has access to the care that she needs,” Mr. Obama said in a statement at the White House.
“Under the rule, women will still have access to free preventive care that includes contraceptive services, no matter where they work. So that core principle remains,” Obama said. “But if a woman’s employer is a charity or a hospital that has a religious objection to providing contraceptive services as part of their health plan, the insurance company – not the hospital, not the charity – will be required to reach out and offer the woman contraceptive care free of charge, without copays and without hassles."
The president stated that the overall cost of health care is lower when women have access to contraceptive services.
The Obama administration has been under fire since last month, when it announced its birth control mandate as part of the Affordable Care Act. Churches themselves were already exempt, but religiously affiliated organizations such as charities, hospitals, and universities – which hire many people outside the faith – were not. With the Roman Catholic Church leading the charge, they objected vehemently to what they consider a violation of religious liberty. Some Democrats, including Vice President Joe Biden and former White House Chief of Staff William Daley, both Catholic, had reportedly registered concerns about the mandate.
The issue has also reverberated in the presidential campaign, reviving the culture war in a big way and highlighting the political challenge for top contender Mitt Romney among the Republican Party’s conservative base. After losing three contests last Tuesday to Rick Santorum, a vocal social conservative, Mr. Romney was already reeling.
Now, in his speech Friday afternoon to a big conservative conference in Washington, Romney faces pressure to convince this key constituency that he would fight for their causes as president. As governor of Massachusetts, he instituted a health-care reform that served as the model for Obama’s reform. He has also claimed that he fought to overturn a mandate for birth control coverage when he became governor, though some Democrats in Massachusetts dispute that.
Catholic Democrats who had criticized the White House’s original proposed rule responded positively to Obama’s announcement.
“There are some who have wrongly used this debate to pit women's rights against freedom of religion,” said former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia, who is running for the US Senate. “The steps taken by the White House show that there is a way to respect both.”
But it seemed doubtful that Friday’s announcement would end the larger political debate.
At CPAC – the Conservative Political Action Conference – speakers used the uproar as a springboard to attack the administration and burnish their images as defenders of religious liberty and of the unborn. Some religious conservatives oppose the use of birth control pills, as they can work as an abortifacient.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), who ran for president in 2008, thanked Obama for giving social conservatives a new spark.
“You have done more than any person in the entire GOP field, [more than] any candidate has done, to bring this party to unity and energize this party as a result of your attack on religious liberty and the attack on the personhood of every human being in America,” said Mr. Huckabee.
“Thank you President Obama,” he continued, “for doing what apparently none of us Republicans could apparently get done.”
Staff writer David Grant contributed to this report.