The White House, in an abrupt shift aimed at quelling an election-year firestorm, announced on Friday that religious employers would not be required to offer free birth control to workers and that the onus would instead be put on health insurers. The compromise, to be formally unveiled by President Barack Obama, seeks to accommodate religious organizations outraged by a new rule that would have required them to offer free contraceptive coverage.
Instead, the new approach puts the burden on insurance companies, ordering them to provide workers at religious-affiliated institutions with free family planning if they request it, without involving their employer at all, the White House said. The rule had sparked an outcry from Catholic Church leaders, Republicans and other social conservatives who denounced it as an attack on religious freedom.
The policy shift is aimed at defusing the controversy and preventing it from becoming a liability for Obama's re-election campaign, while at the same time trying not to anger his liberal base. But it was unlikely to assuage all of the concerns of church leaders. "Under the new policy announced today, women will have free preventive care that includes contraceptive services no matter where she works," the White House said in a statement.
"If a woman works for religious employers with objections to providing contraceptive services as part of its health plan, the religious employer will not be required to provide contraception coverage but her insurance company will be required to offer contraceptive care free of charge," it said. A senior Obama administration official said the change would ensure women get access to preventive health care while also protecting religious liberty.
The administration had been looking at several state laws, including those that let religious employers opt out of covering birth control in their insurance packages, so long as they refer women to a provider that will offer the benefit at low cost. But Catholic leaders opposed that option, arguing that referring women to low-cost contraception is as immoral as distributing the drugs and devices first-hand.
The regulation at the center of the controversy requires religious-affiliated groups such as charities, hospitals and universities, but not churches themselves, to provide employees coverage for birth control as other health insurance providers must do. The Catholic Church opposes most methods of birth control.
Polls indicate a majority of Americans and Catholics support the rule. A Public Religion Research Institute poll taken last week found 55 percent of Americans want employers to provide healthcare plans that cover contraception and birth control, including nearly six in 10 Catholics.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Writing by Matt Spetalnick)