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White House: ‘Absolutely firm,’ but willing to talk, on birth control

By Erika Bolstad and Lesley Clark, McClatchy Newspapers –

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.

“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 preventive 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.

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.”

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