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The Contraception Compromise Plays Out Politically


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

We begin today with the election year fight over religion, health insurance and birth control. This past week, President Barack Obama offered a compromise to his controversial requirement that faith-based institutions provide contraception in employee health plans. Under the new rules, religiously affiliated employers will not be required to offer free contraceptive coverage. Churches were already exempt. Instead, insurance companies would have to offer and pay for contraception.

Here's President Obama speaking Friday at a White House press conference.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Religious liberty will be protected. And a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women.

MARTIN: Still, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says Mr. Obama's compromise doesn't go far enough and presents some, quote, "serious moral concerns." Their opposition to birth control is a matter of church teaching.

For more on this intersection of politics and religion, we're joined by Mara Liasson, national political correspondent for NPR. Mara, hello.


MARTIN: And Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR's religion correspondent. Thanks for joining us, Barb.


MARTIN: I want to start out with the political dimension, Mara. The White House is saying that the amendment they've made to this rule in response to all this pressure, that this change should be sufficient to meet the concerns of religious groups, right?

LIASSON: It certainly meets the concerns of the people the White House wanted to satisfy, not the bishops - who are opposed to contraception in the first place. But people like Sister Carol Keehan, of the Catholic Hospital Association, who was a big ally of the president's on the health care reform bill. The abortion rights groups and the pro-contraception groups are happy. This is where the White House wanted to be, accommodating religious liberty on the one hand but also guaranteeing free contraceptive coverage for women who wanted it.

That said, this mess could have been avoided. A lot of allies of the White House are saying this was badly handled. This compromise was available to them back in the summer when they first announced these rules, and they could have avoided a lot of the culture wars that we're seeing now.

MARTIN: But, Barb, despite this accommodation the White House has made, Catholic bishops are still upset about this.

HAGERTY: Yes, they are. Initially they said that this was a first step in the right direction. But now they've changed their mind. Their main point is that they just don't like the mandate period, because they say it treats pregnancy like a disease, it needs to be eliminated, and they don't think the government should be enforcing that idea.

Now, they have a couple of specific concerns. One is many dioceses and charities are self-insured. So how does that work? You know, would they have to pay for birth control? And also, they say that even if an insurer agrees to pay for birth control, they're still part of the religious groups' plans.

So, religious groups would essentially be paying for contraceptives indirectly. They say the only answer is to rescind the mandate, which, of course, the administration has said it won't do. And so, they say that they're going to continue to fight both on Capitol Hill and in the courts.

MARTIN: Barb, how is this issue playing out with Catholics in general? This is an election year.

HAGERTY: That's right, and that is a really - the interesting question. Until this announcement, many Catholics - both conservative and liberal - were behind the bishops. And the reason is the bishops did a really brilliant job of framing this issue. They said, look, this isn't about contraceptives. It's about religious liberties, about government telling a religious entity that they have to abandon their beliefs and pay for services that they believe are evil.

But now, I suspect that a lot of Catholics think that White House has taken that religious liberties issue off the table by essentially putting a firewall between the charities and universities, and hospitals and the actual birth control coverage. And in the end, you know, Catholics want contraceptives to be covered by their insurance. After all, 98 percent of Catholics, according to some surveys, say they use birth control at some point in their lives.

So, we're going to have to see how this plays out. But I wouldn't be at all surprised if most Catholics, except for, say, the most conservative, are pleased with this resolution.

MARTIN: And, Mara, Catholics make up an important swing vote, right?

LIASSON: They certainly do, and they make up an important vote in swing states, like Ohio and Pennsylvania and Michigan. And the president does need rank and file Catholics. There has been polling after the decision came out that show majorities of Catholic voters support the policy, politically independent Catholic voters favor the policy. So, I think the White House feels that in the end they came down where they wanted to be, so they could say that they were accommodating religious liberty.

MARTIN: So while this debate was ensuing, Republicans were meeting here in Washington, D.C. for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. I want to play a little clip. Here's Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum. He was addressing the crowd about the birth control policy.

RICK SANTORUM: This is the kind of coercion that we can expect. It's not about contraception. It's about economic liberty. It's about freedom of speech. It's about freedom of religion. It's about government control of your lives and it's got to stop.


MARTIN: So, Mara, is this a useful political issue for the Republicans to seize on right now?

LIASSON: Well, it certainly helps Rick Santorum. He's the social conservative in the Republican primary. I think it does fire up the Republican base. As long as they can argue that it's not about contraception - that it's about religious liberty - they're on strong ground. But I think now the president has a strong counterargument to say it is about contraception. When it's about contraception then, I think, the president's side wins. When it's seen as an issue of religious liberty, the conservative side wins.

And I think that's the tension that you're going to see in this election, trying to frame this issue to fire up each party's base.

MARTIN: So, Barb, we've heard the response from Catholics. But what about religious conservatives in general? Is the issue of religious liberty something that resonates with them this election year?

HAGERTY: It does. It's off the table for large groups of people. But for religious conservatives it's not off the table. I mean, what's interesting about this, Rachel, is that a lot of groups - something like 40 groups, which were mainly evangelical groups - joined forces with the bishops, even though they don't have a theological objection to birth control.

So, what they're saying is that, you know, this is a religious liberty issue. They're suspicious of the Obama administration on culture war issues like abortion and gay rights. They say he's hostile to religion. Others say, I should say, that there's little evidence for that, that the White House has given millions of dollars to Catholic charities, much more than the Bush White House.

But at any rate, this is an issue that religious conservatives like. And they say that this change on birth control coverage will not change their minds.

MARTIN: NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty and NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks to you both.

LIASSON: Thank you.

HAGERTY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.