WASHINGTON — Facing vocal opposition from religious leaders and an escalating political fight, the White House sought yesterday to ease mounting objections to a new administration rule that would require health insurance plans — including those offered by Roman Catholic universities and charities — to offer birth control to women free of charge.
As the Republican presidential candidates and conservative leaders sought to frame the rule as showing President Obama’s insensitivity to religious beliefs, Obama’s aides promised to explore ways to make it more palatable to religious-affiliated institutions, perhaps by allowing some employers to make side insurance plans available that are not directly paid for by the institutions.
But White House officials insisted the president would not back down from his decision last month that employees at institutions affiliated with religious organizations receive access to contraceptives.
During a campaign season that was supposed to be consumed by economic concerns, the growing uproar surrounding the contraception rule and other developments — including a federal appeals court’s decision yesterday to strike down a California ban on same-sex marriage and the protests last week that prompted an anticancer group to reverse a ban on grants to Planned Parenthood — showed that social issues still resonate strongly on the political stage.
With congressional Republicans coming out in opposition to the administration stance, the contraception fight was threatening to erupt into a major political confrontation. But how it would play in the broader electorate remained uncertain.
Even though Catholic bishops and some Catholic institutions have sounded vocal opposition to the law, recent polls, which Obama officials were pointing to yesterday, show that a majority of Catholics favor the new contraceptive rule, which Obama approved in January after heated debate in the White House. There was high-level division among some women and men on the staff that was a result more of differences in strategy than of disagreement with the policy.
Nonetheless, Obama’s aides were concerned about being portrayed as hostile to religious groups in an election year.
“We certainly don’t want to abridge anyone’s religious freedoms, so we’re going to look for a way to move forward that both provides women with the preventative care that they need and respects the prerogatives of religious institutions,’’ David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama’s reelection campaign, said yesterday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.’’
Axelrod’s comments came in response to the opposition that gathered steam last week after letters denouncing the rule and written by Catholic clergy members were read in churches across the country. “I’m less concerned about the messaging of this than to find a resolution that makes sense,’’ Axelrod said.
His comments sparked a flurry of calls and e-mails to the White House and the Obama campaign from both supporters and opponents, who interpreted his remarks as the beginning of a White House reversal on an issue that has captured attention on university campuses and in churches around the country.
The criticism put the White House and the Obama campaign in the delicate position of having to explain - as they did repeatedly yesterday - that while the administration was sensitive to the issue of religious freedom, it was sticking to its position.
“The president is committed to making sure that all women have access to these important preventive services,’’ Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said at a briefing that was dominated by questions on the policy.
He pointed to the one-year grace period that the rule gives to religious-affiliated institutions, which was put into place, he said, “because the president is very interested in finding the appropriate balance between religious beliefs and convictions.’’
But Republicans were already running with the issue. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, called the law “abhorrent to the foundational principles’’ of the country.’’
On the campaign trail yesterday, all the Republican presidential candidates seized on the issue and assailed Obama for what they said was a curtailment of religious freedom. In Johnstown, Colo., Mitt Romney called the rule “a real blow, particularly to our friends in the Catholic faith.’’
But Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, hoping to galvanize the conservative base of the party, tried to tar Romney with the same brush, saying that while he was governor of Massachusetts, he had allowed a similar rule to take effect and they said he was being hypocritical now.
In 2005, Romney vetoed a measure to require hospitals to provide the morning-after pill to rape victims. The Legislature overrode his veto, but he did say at the time that in his “heart of hearts,’’ he believed that rape victims should have access to emergency contraception.