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Religion And Birth Control: Not Just A GOP Fight

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Catholic up for re-election this year, was one of the Democrats who spoke out against the White House birth control policy before it was altered.
J. Scott Applewhite
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Catholic up for re-election this year, was one of the Democrats who spoke out against the White House birth control policy before it was altered.

President Obama moved swiftly Friday to quell a politically perilous uproar involving two hot-button issues: birth control and religious institutions.

In January, the Obama administration announced that under its health care law, religiously affiliated institutions such as hospitals and schools would have to include birth control in their employees' health coverage.

All this week, Republicans on Capitol Hill bashed that policy as a violation of religious freedom, and some of the president's fellow Democrats added to the heat.

'An Accommodation'

When the White House first announced its birth control coverage policy, it said it would wait 18 months before making a final ruling on the issue. But by Friday, it was clear that issue had turned into a political brush fire that could do a lot of damage if not doused quickly.

So Obama stepped into the White House briefing room and announced what senior White House officials are calling "an accommodation." Obama acknowledged everything was happening faster than planned.

"After the many genuine concerns that have been raised over the last few weeks, as well, frankly, the more cynical desire on the part of some to make this into a political football," he said, "it became clear that spending months hammering out a solution was not going to be an option."

Under the revised policy, religiously linked institutions will no longer have to directly provide birth control coverage. Instead, insurance companies themselves will have to offer such coverage free of charge.

Is It About Religion Or Contraception?

The timing of the president's policy shift suggested damage control. It came less than 48 hours after House Speaker John Boehner strode out onto the House floor and denounced the decision to mandate birth control coverage by religiously affiliated institutions.

"This attack by the federal government on religious freedom in our country must not stand and will not stand," Boehner said.

The GOP offensive continued at the annual meeting in Washington of the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell addressed that group on Thursday.

"The Obama administration has crossed a dangerous line, and we will fight this attack on the fundamental right to religious freedom until the courts overturn it or until we have a president who will reverse it," he said.

Some of the fiercest criticism has come from Catholic Church leaders. Senate Republican leaders tapped New Hampshire freshman Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who happens to be Catholic, to state the gist of their argument.

"This is not a women's rights issue, this is a religious liberty issue," she said.

That prompted a swift response from another Catholic lawmaker, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state.

"Well, we have news for Republicans: This is about contraception," she said.

Murray has nearly five years left in her term, unlike New York Senate Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who's seeking re-election this year. Still, like Murray, Gillibrand has been an enthusiastic supporter of the White House's original birth control mandate.

"I think the president made the right decision in ensuring that all America's women have access to affordable contraception," Gillibrand says.

Democrats In Opposition

Other Catholic senators facing voters next fall have been openly critical of the original policy. One of them is Democrat Bob Casey, whose state of Pennsylvania is home to many Catholic voters.

"I've said very clearly that I oppose the White House decision," Casey said Thursday.

Another vulnerable Catholic Senate Democrat up for re-election this year is West Virginia's Joe Manchin. He, too, spoke out against the policy hours before it was altered.

"I feel it's wrong, the direction and the position that the administration is taking and [Health and Human Services] has taken. I think it needs to be repealed, overturned, and let's go back to where we were," he said.

Some Democrats say privately they felt blindsided by the policy the White House has now altered. Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science at Brown University, closely follows the Senate. She says this issue could affect which party controls the Senate next year.

"I mean, there's no question the Catholics remain a stalwart of the Democrats, particularly in some very key states and districts in the country," she says. "So I think this was an issue that Democrats firmly believed had to be addressed as quickly as possible."

The White House's shift in birth control policy was enough to quiet earlier criticism from Tim Kaine, a Catholic Democrat running for an open Senate seat in Virginia.

"My only concern was that a church or a church-affiliated institution not be required to do something or to purchase the coverage that violated religious doctrine," Kaine said on MSNBC after the president's announcement. "That concern has been conclusively solved by this compromise."

Republicans, however, are showing no signs of letting up on their criticism: GOP Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri called Friday's policy shift "an accounting gimmick."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.