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To Allay Outcry, Obama Eases Birth Control Rule

To Allay Outcry, Obama Eases Birth Control Rule

By Alexis Simendinger - February 10, 2012

In tennis, it's called an unforced error. In presidential debates, it's called an "oops" moment. With President Obama's contraception policy repair work Friday, the administration bobbled without conceding a mistake, "accommodated" but denied a retreat, and pointed the finger at critics it accused of being too eager to play "political football."

After weeks of public furor over new requirements for no-cost contraception coverage for workers, the president walked into the White House briefing room with Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to explain how the administration would navigate around the objections of Catholic bishops, faith-based institutions and some Catholic critics from both political parties -- without forfeiting health policy objectives.

Those critics had argued since January that the president’s policy trampled on religious liberties, while women supportive of the policy said preventive health insurance coverage, including no-fee birth control, was moreover an issue of freedom and choice for all workers.

“We've reached a decision on how to move forward,” Obama announced, declining to take any questions from reporters. “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.” Church employers, the administration stressed, are exempted if they wish.

But to fix a policy under fire, the White House scrambled, hunting for a way to ensure that women working for religious nonprofits, such as hospitals, schools and social service agencies, could access contraception at no cost -- mirroring the benefits of other American women covered by health insurance -- without involving their employers, who might object to endorsing, providing or paying for birth control for religious reasons.

Sebelius, in subsequent television interviews, conceded that the firestorm over religious freedom and women’s contraceptive rights prompted the president to instruct HHS to “speed up” its deliberations about how to thread a needle -- abridging a leisurely year of considerations to an expedient handful of days. A faster timetable was Obama’s most candid concession that his health care effort had run off the tracks, threatening to become a political liability with women voters, or Catholic critics, or both.

“I directed [HHS] to speed up the process that had already been envisioned,” the president said as he explained his aims. “We weren’t going to spend a year doing this; we're going to spend a week or two doing this.”

The administration is now mandating that insurance companies, under the Affordable Care Act, provide contraception coverage at no cost to employees and reach out to women employed in religious-affiliated workplaces to inform them of said benefit. Senior White House officials were noncommittal Friday about whether health insurers were happy about the new policy.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner told reporters his boss would continue “to work toward a legislative solution” because the Catholic Church and other interests “are not yet convinced” that Obama’s policy adjustment “doesn’t constitute an attack on religious freedom.”

“We reserve judgment on the details until we have them,” Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Friday in a statement. “Today’s decision to revise how individuals obtain services that are morally objectionable to religious entities and people of faith is a first step in the right direction,” Dolan said. “We hope to work with the Administration to guarantee that Americans’ consciences and our religious freedom are not harmed by these regulations.”

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a statement released late Friday afternoon, was less collegial: “This whole episode demonstrates why politicians should not be the ones to make determinations about religious beliefs and is just another reason why the deeply flawed health law needs to be repealed.” He called the administration’s original rule unconstitutional, adding, “They’re not sorry they violated the First Amendment, they’re sorry Americans didn’t agree with them when they did.”

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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