* Republicans latch onto issue on campaign trail
* Florida senator introduces bill to exempt groups
By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON, Feb 7 The Obama administration
is willing to work with Catholic universities , hospitals
and other church-affiliated employers to implement a new policy
that requires health insurers to offer birth control coverage,
a top adviser to the president's re-election campaign said
David Axelrod, a senior campaign adviser to President Barack
Obama, said the administration had heard the Church's concerns
and never intended to "abridge anyone's religious freedom."
But he gave no sign that the administration would reverse
course under intensifying pressure from Church leaders and
political heat from Republican presidential candidates.
"This is an important issue. It's important for millions of
women across this country. We want to resolve it in an
appropriate way, and we're going to do that," he said in remarks
on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program.
White House spokesman Jay Carney also sought to diffuse
criticism from Church leaders, telling reporters later on
Tuesday that the administration would work with religious
organizations "to see if the implementation of the policy can be
done in a way that allays some of those concerns."
U.S. Catholic bishops have slammed the Obama administration
for a regulation finalized on Jan. 20 that would require health
insurance to include birth control and other preventative health
services for women. The leaders contend that the policy
infringes on religious liberty because the Church does not
condone birth control of any kind.
Over the weekend, Catholic clergy across the country called
for congregations to protest the rule and pressure Obama to
"To force American citizens to choose between violating
their consciences and forgoing their healthcare is literally
unconscionable," said Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan,
archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of
Catholic Bishops, in a statement last month.
Jim Towey, president of Ave Maria University in
Florida, who also served in the administration of President
George W. Bush, said Tuesday he would fight the provision using
"all lawful means at our disposal."
"Our non-Catholic employees and students understand
fully that the University must adhere to Catholic teaching and
they do not expect us to provide such services," he said in a
REPUBLICANS SEE ASSAULT
The controversy centers on a provision in the 2010
healthcare bill which requires health insurance to cover basic
preventative services for women. An advisory group, the
Institute of Medicine, had recommended covering a fuller range
of contraceptive services to help prevent unwanted
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
adopted the institute's recommendation but included an exemption
for churches, although not related religious organizations such
Twenty-eight U.S. states already require health
insurers to cover contraception.
The issue quickly took on political dimensions, with
Republican presidential contenders criticizing the
administration for violating religious liberties. Obama is
seeking re-election in what many see as a referendum on his
policies during the last three years.
Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney, in
Colorado, on Tuesday called the requirement an "assault on
Republican rival Rick Santorum, who is Catholic, called
the White House's comments "ridiculous" while speaking in
Colorado on Monday. Rival Newt Gingrich, also a Catholic, has
also declared the policy a war on religious freedom.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, whose name has surfaced as
a possible Republican vice presidential candidate, has
introduced a bill to further expand the exemption for religious
Just how religious-based organizations could implement
the rule to meet the Obama administration's criteria while still
holding fast to their core beliefs remains to be seen.
Carney offered no details but said the White House
would discuss possible avenues over the next 18 months.
"How the process moves forward in these discussions in terms
of examining possible ways that we could potentially allay some
of these concerns, there are a lot of different ideas out
there," he said at the press briefing.
Jennifer Duffy, senior political analyst for The Cook
Political Report, said neither side was likely to back down in
the run-up to the election.
"I don't think the bishops have any intention of letting
this fade and, especially if their position is intractable, then
it's a fight," she said. "It becomes a staring contest."
Emergency contraception, also known as the "morning after
pill" and seen by many conservatives as akin to abortion, for
the most part would not fall under the rule since it is already
available behindthe-counter for those 17 and older.
Women's rights groups and other contraception supporters,
who were disappointed last year when the Obama administration
rejected a push to make emergency contraception more widely
available, had feared that Obama might widen the exemption.
Susan Wood, a health professor at George Washington
University's Jacobs Institute of Women's Health who backs birth
control, said religious groups should have no more control over
what employees do with their insurance than with their
"This is an employee benefit issue. This is not the Catholic
Church having to provide a service directly. No Catholic
hospital is going to be required to write a prescription or
provide a pack of pills."
Two polls released by Planned Parenthood, which provides
birth control and other reproductive services, showed that the
majority of voters, including Catholics, support contraceptive