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On contraception, White House tries to balance the rights of access and of conscience

In an effort to address the concerns of religious organizations, the Obama administration offered another compromise on Friday over the prickly issue
Various types of contraceptive pills and their packaging. (File photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
Various types of contraceptive pills and their packaging.

In an effort to address the concerns of religious organizations, the Obama administration offered another compromise on Friday over the prickly issue of contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Under the new proposal, women still get access to contraception–but religious-affiliated employers would not be forced to "contract, arrange, pay or refer for any contraceptive coverage to which they object on religious grounds," according to the Health and Human Services Department. Essentially, these employers can wipe their hands of any involvement with it.

While it remains unclear who will pay the bill in this scenario, female employees of these groups would receive coverage through separate individual health insurance policies, without co-pays.

Churches were already exempt from the requirement of providing contraception coverage to employees under President Obama’s signature healthcare law. But the proposed rules would expand the exemption to include faith-based non-profits, such as universities, charities and hospitals. Those in self-insured group health plans, as in companies that pay for their employees’ health care out-of-pocket, would also be exempt under these new rules.

“The president has been very clear on his views on this. He's been very clear on what he believes are two compelling interests which is the necessity of and the appropriateness of providing preventive service to women across the country, including contraception,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney on Friday. “Making sure that we are mindful of religious liberty and he has instructed those who work for him on this issue to be cognizant of those criteria as they developed the rules.”

This compromise signals the administration's attempt to ensure that all women have access to reproductive services, and appease religious groups who have been fighting back on the Affordable Care Act birth control mandate for months, arguing it violates their First Amendment rights.

On Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said, “Today, the administration is taking the next step in providing women across the nation with coverage of recommended preventive care at no cost, while respecting religious concerns. We will continue to work with faith-based organizations, women's organizations, insurers and others to achieve these goals."

So far, the reviews are mixed. Progressive women's groups like NARAL Pro-Choice and Planned Parenthood applauded the move. "This policy delivers on the promise of women having access to birth control without co-pays no matter where they work,” Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said. “This policy makes it clear that your boss does not get to decide whether you can have birth control."

Likewise, the left-leaning Catholics United said “the White House deserves praise in alleviating the Church’s concerns.”

The conservative Susan B. Anthony List opposed the changes. "Once again, President Obama's so-called 'compromise' is unacceptable--religious and moral freedom is not up for negotiation. There must be no religious 'test' by the government as to who, and what type of entities, are entitled to a conscience."

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a vocal opponent of the mandate, said it plans to study the proposal and release a detailed statement later.