Obama revamps birth control policy
Posted February 10, 2012
WASHINGTON — Retreating in the face of a political uproar, President Barack Obama on Friday announced that religious employers won't have to cover birth control for their employees. The administration instead will demand that insurance companies be the ones directly responsible for providing free contraception.
Obama's abrupt shift is an attempt to satisfy both sides of a deeply sensitive debate, and most urgently, to end a mounting election-year nightmare for the White House.
Women will still get guaranteed access to birth control without co-pays or premiums 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.
"No woman's health should depend upon who she is or where she works or how much money she makes," the president said in a statement to reporters at the White House. "Every woman should be in control of the decisions that affect her own health, period."
By keeping free contraception for employers at religious workplaces – but providing a different way to do it – the White House asserts that it gave no ground on the basic principle of full preventative care that matters most to Obama.
Yet, it also was clear that Obama 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.
Obama said his staff consulted leaders on both sides of the debate to forge a decision, but he had to speed up the process because of the uproar.
"Religious organizations won't have to pay for these services, and no religious institution will have to provide these services directly," he said. "But women who work at these institutions will have access to free contraceptive services, just like other women."
White House 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.
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.
The furor has consumed media attention and threatened to undermine Obama's re-election bid just as he was in a stride over improving economic news. Political reality forced the White House to come up with a solution to a complex matter must faster than anticipated.
"Some folks in Washington may want to treat this as a political wedge issue, but it shouldn't be," the president said. "This is an issue where people of goodwill on both sides of the debate have been sorting through some very complicated questions to find a solution that works for everyone.
"We've done that. Religious liberty will be protected, and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women."
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. If such an employer opts out, 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.
Already, 28 states had required health insurance plans to cover birth control before the federal regulations were issued. However, they appear to have differing exemptions for religious employers.
Obama's health care law requires most insurance plans to cover women's preventative services, without a co-pay, starting on Aug. 1. Those services include well women visits, domestic violence screening and contraception, all designed to encourage health care that many women may otherwise find unaffordable.
The White House says covering contraception saves insurance companies money by keeping women healthy; how the insurance industry will see the mandate is another question.
Without adjusting his stand, Obama has risked alienated Catholics who have become courted swing voters in such pivotal political states as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. In 2008, Obama won 54 percent of the total Catholic vote, compared to 45 percent for Republican John McCain.
As the week wore on, the White House increasingly signaled that a change was coming.
Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic, said in a radio interview Thursday that "there is going to be a significant attempt to work this out and there is time to do that."
Outside advocates were urging a quick resolution.
"As a Catholic I don't want to hear about this in Mass every week until the election," said Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats For Life of America. "I don't think it's good for the party and I don't think it's good for Obama's re-election chances."