In a long-anticipated decision that will affect millions of women's ability to pay for contraception, the Obama administration announced on Friday that it would not allow religiously affiliated employers such as universities and hospitals to deny full birth control coverage to the women they employ.
Under the new rule, set forth by the Affordable Care Act, most women employed in the U.S. will have the cost of their birth control covered with no co-pay. Churches and other places of worship would continue to be exempt from having to cover contraception for their employees if they morally object to the practice, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, but all other organizations will have a year to comply with the new requirement, regardless of whether or not they are religiously affiliated.
Some women's rights groups and Democratic women in Congress had begun to lose enthusiasm for President Obama after the controversial decision by HHS to limit access to the morning-after pill. Many of them recently expressed deep concern that he would cave to the powerful Catholic bishop lobby on the birth control issue, but they were pleasantly surprised with his administration's decision on Friday.
"I am glad that the Obama Administration has taken the sensible path here," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) told HuffPost. "By keeping these provisions strong, the administration is ensuring that millions of women will have access to affordable birth control. That's good news for them and for the health of our entire country."
"The bishops pulled out all the stops in their campaign against women’s access to contraception," said Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. "The Obama administration stood with those who support religious liberty and believe in giving women the freedom of conscience to make their own reproductive health decisions."
The religious organizations that have been lobbying the White House for months to expand the so-called "conscience clause" were deeply upset by the decision, arguing that it includes coverage of the morning-after pill, which they believe causes abortions.
“Freedom of conscience is a sacred gift from God, not a grant from the state,” said Galen Carey, NAE Vice President for Government Relations. “No government has the right to compel its citizens to violate their conscience. The HHS rules trample on our most cherished freedoms and set a dangerous precedent.”
"This is a shameless attempt to kick the can down the road in an election year," said Hannah Smith, senior legal counsel for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "Religious colleges, universities, and hospitals will never pay for abortion drugs in violation of their religious beliefs -- this year or any other year."
Emergency contraception pills are not, in fact, "abortion drugs." They can prevent a pregnancy by stopping ovulation or stopping an egg from attaching to the uterine wall, but they cannot end a pregnancy once it starts.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of the most powerful lobbying groups on the issue of the religious exemption, did not respond to a request for comment on the announcement.
Secretary Sebelius said she had based her decision on "abundant" scientific evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women and their families.
"This decision was made after very careful consideration, including the important concerns some have raised about religious liberty," she said. "I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services."