The Obama administration today said it would move forward with a new mandate requiring most U.S. employers - including religiously affiliated hospitals and schools - to provide health care plans that cover contraceptive services for female employees free of charge.
But the Catholic Church and other religious groups, which consider some forms of contraception as the termination of life, had waged an intensive lobbying campaign for a clear exemption of affiliated institutions from the new rules.
The Department of Health and Human Services today said, despite their concerns, it will hold the line on the requirement, but extended the deadline for compliance until 2013.
"We will continue to work closely with religious groups during this transitional period to discuss their concerns," Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement.
She added, "Scientists have abundant evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women and their families, it is documented to significantly reduce health costs, and is the most commonly taken drug in America by young and middle-aged women."
Sebelius said the decision "strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services."
Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, who was a fierce defender of the president and broke with U.S. Catholic Bishops in supporting the health care law, said she was "disappointed" that the administration did not affirm an "appropriate conscience protection" for religiously affiliated employers.
"It was important to have clarified by the president and the secretary of HHS that this decision will not undermine the current conscience protections in law and so very necessary for our ministries," Keehan wrote in a statement.
Churches and other houses of worship - "religious employers" - have been and remain exempt from the new rules, administration officials said. But Keehan and other Catholic leaders have warned that Catholic colleges, universities, hospitals and charitable organizations do not qualify.
"The challenge that these regulations posed for many groups remains unresolved. This indicates the need for an effective national conversation on the appropriate conscience protections in our pluralistic country, which has always respected the role of religions."
Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has gone further, calling the requirement "an unprecedented attack on religious liberty."
But leaders of abortion rights and women's groups today praised the administration's decision not to expand the contraception exemption as a defense of women's health. "All women should have access to contraceptive coverage, regardless of where they work," NARAL Pro-Choice America president Nancy Keenan said.
"The administration stood firm against intensive lobbying efforts from anti-birth-control organizations trying to expand the refusal option even further to allow organizations and corporations to deny their employees contraceptive coverage," she said. "As a result, millions will get access to contraception, and they will not have to ask their bosses for permission."
Independent studies, including an April report by the Guttmacher Institute, have found an overwhelming majority of sexually active, religious women in the United States have used contraception at some point in their lives. And many religiously affiliated employers already offer health plans that cover the services as well.