WASHINGTON — The White House insisted Wednesday that the president's commitment to contraceptive access for women is "absolutely firm," even as Republicans from Capitol Hill to the presidential campaign trail assailed the policy as an attack on religious liberty.
Republicans seized on a call from Catholic bishops, who in recent weeks have asked their parishioners to object to a federal law requiring religious-based institutions, such as Catholic hospitals and universities, to provide contraceptives as part of their health care coverage. A new law taking effect this year requires most private insurers to pay for birth control. Religious groups have been given an extra year to comply.
At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney said the administration wants all American women — no matter where they work — to have access to the same health care coverage and the same preventive care services. That includes contraception without a co-payment.
"We want to work with all of these organizations to implement this policy in a way that is as sensitive to their concerns as possible," Carney said. "But let's be clear: The president is committed to ensuring that women have access to contraception without paying any extra costs, no matter where they work.
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"That's the president's commitment," he said. "That is explicit in the policy proposal."
But at the Capitol, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, delivered a rare floor speech vowing a repeal. He and his Republican counterparts in the Senate called it an "assault on religious liberty."
"In imposing this requirement, the federal government has drifted dangerously beyond its constitutional boundaries, encroaching on religious freedom in a manner that affects millions of Americans and harms some of our nation's most vital institutions," Boehner said.
The White House scrambled to contain the controversy — and cast the debate not as one over religious freedom, but one over access to affordable preventative care for women. Democratic women also jumped to the defense of the policy, calling the Republican efforts to repeal the birth control requirement an "aggressive and misleading campaign to deny" health care to women.
"Those now attacking the new health-coverage requirement claim it is an assault on religious liberty, but the opposite is true," wrote Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Barbara Boxer of California and Patty Murray of Washington.
"Religious freedom means that Catholic women who want to follow their church's doctrine can do so, avoiding the use of contraception in any form," the senators wrote. "But the millions of American women who choose to use contraception should not be forced to follow religious doctrine, whether Catholic or non-Catholic."
A survey released this week by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute found that 49 percent of Americans say that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception or birth control at no cost. Forty-six percent said they shouldn't have to provide such coverage.
But 52 percent of Catholics said religious institutions should provide coverage that includes contraception. The numbers were even higher among young people: 58 percent of people ages 18 to 29 said religious institutions should provide health care plans that include contraception coverage. Women were "significantly more likely" than men to agree.
Democrats suggest there's heightened awareness about politicizing women's health care after the Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast cancer charity's decision to end — then restore following an outcry — grants for breast cancer detection to Planned Parenthood.
"Women in this country are tired of being treated like a political football by Republicans in Congress who have tried continually and are continuing to try to take away their benefits, to take away their rights," Boxer said Wednesday during a news conference.
Carney dismissed any political calculations, saying Obama was "focused on putting in place the right policies for women across the country. He's focused on finding a balance that is sensitive to the concerns expressed by some religious groups."
He said the administration is prepared to work with religious organizations that say the new provision would require them to violate their conscience. He also said the White House was sensitive to the religious concerns and had included a process for further talks, as well as an exemption for churches and houses of worship.
"From the beginning, we understood the sensitivity of this," Carney said. "That is why we sought the balance that we did in the policy itself, why churches and houses of worship are exempted and why this transition period was a part of the rule and why we're having these conversations."
Republicans said the administration's call for such talks during the transition period was merely to force religious institutions to come around to their point of view, not for the federal government to change its mind.
"Bottom line is churches should have a right to express themselves," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sponsor of the Senate bill that would repeal the requirement that religious organizations provide birth control.
"We're not banning contraception, and we're not even asking that the churches be told that they can't fund this stuff," Rubio said. "All we're saying is that if the tenets of their faith are such that they say a specific activity of their faith is something they shouldn't do, the federal government shouldn't use its power to force them to pay for that. That's all we're saying."
On the Republican presidential campaign trail, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney accused Obama of an "assault on religion" over the issue. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum on Fox News accused the president of overstepping his constitutional authority.
"He is trampling on the most sacred right, the freedom of conscience," Santorum said, predicting that the administration would backtrack. "I predict they're going to fold their tent on this one. This simply can't stand."
Carney called Romney an "odd messenger," because the services that would be provided under the rule are the same that were provided in Massachusetts when Romney was governor — including contraception and a religious exemption for houses of worship, churches and parochial schools.
He called it "ironic that Mitt Romney is criticizing the president for pursuing a policy that's virtually identical to the one that was in place when he was governor of Massachusetts."
Insurers in 28 states already are required to cover contraceptives. The requirements in North Carolina, New York and California are identical to the federal requirements, the White House said. States such as Colorado, Georgia and Wisconsin have no exemptions at all for churches or other houses of worship.
About the Controversy
Under the 2009 Affordable Care Act, most health insurance plans — beginning Aug. 1, 2012 — are required to cover preventive services for women including contraceptive services without a co-pay, co-insurance or a deductible.
In January, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that employers who, based on religious beliefs, do not currently provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plan, will be given until Aug. 1, 2013, to comply with the new law. Churches and other houses of worship are exempt, but hospitals and other institutions are not.
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