White House didn't foresee birth control backlash

By Erica Werner

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Feb. 12 2012 12:06 a.m. MST

President Barack Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius leave the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb., 10, 2012, after the president announced the revamp of his contraception policy requiring religious institutions to fully pay for birth control.

Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — It's not like he wasn't warned.

As President Barack Obama considered a decision on birth control that would turn into an unexpected political nightmare, he heard it from inside and outside his White House: He risked a fierce backlash if he required religious employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception in violation of their beliefs.

Over the course of months, Catholic groups and officials spoke with White House aides, sent letters and wrote opinion columns. Vice President Joe Biden and Obama's then-chief of staff, Bill Daley, both Catholics, and other top administration officials spoke of the need to be aware of the consequences, given how Catholic groups would view the decision and how it would affect them.

But the president was hearing from the other side, too. Women's health advocates and their allies inside the White House were adamant about the importance of making free contraception available to all women; to them, it was a matter of health and fairness. Democratic senators and senior advisers joined in.

In the end, that's where Obama came down.

What came next evidently surprised the White House.

There were furious protests from Catholic groups, including administration allies. Republicans and even some Democrats were outraged.

The rising furor threatened to overwhelm the president's message and affect his re-election hopes. With no sign of the firestorm abating, Obama announced a hasty and embarrassing backtrack Friday.

"This is an issue where people of good will on both sides of the debate have been sorting through some very complicated questions to find a solution that works for everyone. With today's announcement, we've done that," Obama said. "Religious liberty will be protected, and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women."

Under the approach, employees at church-affiliated institutions such as Catholic hospitals or charities still could get free birth control coverage, but it would come directly from their health insurer. Employers would not provide or pay for it.

This solution soothed some concerns from religious groups while keeping women's groups satisfied.

So why wasn't this approach taken in the first place?

Similar solutions had been advocated to the White House for months.

According to a senior administration official, some approaches were considered and rejected as unworkable, but what came out Friday simply hadn't occurred to administration officials weeks earlier.

Back then, administration officials perhaps didn't feel the same sense of urgency, according to the official, who said the policy process could have been stronger. The official insisted on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

To many, it seemed a needlessly self-inflicted wound for a president known for taking a politically cautious approach. The White House insisted Obama was attuned to the concerns of religious employers, especially since he had worked with Catholic parishes early in his career in Chicago, and that he intended to address those concerns in time.

But to some Catholics it appeared the administration failed to understand their concerns and how the decision would resonate.

"Lord knows we tried" to warn the administration, said Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby.

Campbell said the administration seemed focused on the health issues involved in putting Obama's health care law in place. "Even though a bunch of us weighed in and said there was this other layer of concern, it's like above where they ordinarily focus, so it just didn't compute," Campbell said.

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