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White House Offers 'Accommodation' On Contraception


On a Friday morning, it's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

For those just waking up, a bitter political fight has changed in the last few hours. President Obama is offering what the White House is calling an accommodation to the Catholic Church and other critics. The administration generated intense opposition with a ruling on contraception. That ruling says employers must fully cover birth control in employee health plans. There is an exception for churches that may oppose contraception, but no exception for large institutions like universities that are affiliated with a church. And that's been the source of the outcry. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us from the White House now to tell us how this policy is changing.

Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: We just described what the rules were for a couple of weeks. What's the new policy going to be?

HORSLEY: Well, under the new policy, women will still have access to birth control at no cost. But if they work for a Catholic hospital or university or some other organization that has a religious objection, then the insurance company - not their employer - will have to reach out to those women and offer contraceptive coverage at no cost. Now, from an economic vantage point, this makes some sense because birth control is cheaper than the alternative. So it's in the insurance company's interest to make it available. But more importantly, it's designed to take the Catholic organization out of the loop. The employer doesn't have to be involved in paying for the insurance, something they object to. And yet women will still get affordable access to birth control, no matter who they work for.

INSKEEP: OK, now, these - the objections to the old policy were raised by Catholic bishops, among others, and Republican presidential candidates have taken up the cry. Is this change going to satisfy the critics?

HORSLEY: Well, it remains to be seen whether this will satisfy the Catholic bishops or anyone whose real objection is to birth control, per se. But from a political point of view, the bishops have lost that argument a long time ago. Surveys show the overwhelming majority of women - including Catholic women - already use birth control at some point in their life.

The argument the bishops and their allies have been winning in the last couple of weeks, and that the White House has been losing, is about religious freedom. And so the White House is now trying to provide some accommodation on that front. The administration doesn't necessarily have to win over the bishops if it can isolate them and win over lay Catholics and others who may want birth control coverage themselves, but not want to see their church or anyone else's church seem to get pushed around by the government.

INSKEEP: The Republicans had fought to make this a broader issue, to involved evangelical Christians, to involve people from other faiths. So who else is the White House thinking about as they make this change?

HORSLEY: Well, you're right. The Republican candidates have been arguing - even before this policy - that Obama administration's been conducting a, quote-unquote, "war on faith," or war on religion. But most of their evidence before this policy tended to be kind of obscure issues that didn't necessarily take hold with the public. This was something that the GOP candidates were really able to sink their teeth into, and so in some ways, it's aimed at silencing them.

But the tightrope for the White House is: How do you accommodate the church and those with a religious objection without losing women, many of whom sort of belatedly rallied around the original administration policy just in the last week or so? Polling shows there are large numbers of women - including Catholic women - who want this kind of coverage. And, of course, young secular women also want it. And those women were a very important constituency for the president in 2008, and likely to be an important constituency for him again in November.

INSKEEP: Now, it's interesting. I'd seen arguments that Catholics don't actually, as a group, feel unanimous about this policy at all. In fact, Catholics narrowly supported the president's old policy, but the real division was between men and women. You saw real differences in polling between men and women on this issue.

HORSLEY: So, again, what the White House wants to do is take away the religious freedom argument and really focus attention on access to birth control for women. If the fight is on that turf, the administration feels like this is a fight they can win, even if they don't necessarily satisfy every criticism from every Catholic bishop.

INSKEEP: So the president will be making his case a little later on today?

HORSLEY: We expect to hear from the president just about an hour from now.

INSKEEP: And are you also expecting more administration officials out as the day goes on?

HORSLEY: Well, they'll be talking, and, of course, they'll also be trying to rally their allies, both among liberal Catholics and among women's organizations.

INSKEEP: OK. Scott, thanks very much.

HORSLEY: It's my pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Again, President Obama is expected a little later on today to announce a change in administration policies on contraception, particularly relating to institutions affiliated with a church. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.