The Battle Over Birth Control

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As women’s health advocates — and social media champions — high-five each other over the reversal of the Susan G. Komen foundation’s decision to defund Planned Parenthood breast cancer prevention programs, another women’s health battle is brewing, this time involving Catholic bishops, Capitol Hill and the White House.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is seen in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington. Credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

On Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that religious institutions’ insurance plans will be required to offer FDA-approved contraceptives for free. While churches and other places of worship are exempt from the requirement, Catholic hospitals and universities — that employ people of many denominations — are not.

Outraged Catholic leaders said complying with the rule would violate their moral conviction and dispatched letters to be read in Sunday Mass urging parishioners to pray that the Obama Administration would change its mind about this “severe assault on religious liberty.”

Republican presidential candidates opened fire on the Obama administration earlier this week. Tuesday night, Rick Santorum devoted a “substantial chunk” to the issue in his three-state victory speech. And, Wednesday morning, House Speaker John Boehner, a Catholic, said that if President Obama doesn’t reverse his position, Congress will overturn it. As if on cue, Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska) introduced just such a resolution Wednesday afternoon.

According to Bloomberg News, the issue had been debated in the White House for months. Risking the alienation of Catholic voters in November, Obama sided with a group of female advisers, including HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius, a Catholic, who opposed an exemption.

WonkBlog‘s Sarah Kiff reports that the White House will probably stand firm because of “the demographics that are most supportive of this particular health reform provision: young voters and women.”

Those two demographics are important here for a key reason: they were crucial to Obama’s victory in 2008. Third Way crunched the numbers earlier this month and found that the “Obama Independents” — the swing group that proved crucial to his 2008 victory — are, as Ryan Lizza put it, “disproportionately young, female and secular.”

Yesterday, White House officials seemed to hint at a possible compromise and supporters worry that the administration might be caving under growing pressure. Like the Komen controversy, this issue has caught fire on social networks — we recommend bookmarking #birthcontrol on your Twitter feed to stay on top of the story.

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