Obama Supporters Worried He May Grant Contraception Exemptions to Catholic Hospitals*

Pete Souza/The White House/AP Photo

In August, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that health insurance plans, as of January 1, 2013, will be required to cover contraception, including FDA-approved emergency contraception.

“These historic guidelines are based on science and existing literature and will help ensure women get the preventive health benefits they need,” she said.

The Catholic Church has been pushing the White House to allow Catholic hospitals to opt out of providing contraception that it considers the termination of a life, and many in the abortion rights community are worried that the president will grant that exemption.

Additionally, many Democrats invested in President Obama’s re-election are worried that if he grants that exemption, he will alienate liberal women voters they will need come November.

Asked today about the concern and the president’s decision-making, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that part of the process was “seeking and receiving public input before the guidelines that were announced by the secretary of Health and Human Services would go into effect.  That process did result in public input, and as well as resulted in numerous comments from various folks who have concerns…about this issue.”

Carney underlined that “this decision has not yet been made. …We want to strike the right balance between expanding coverage of preventive services and respecting religious beliefs.  And that’s the balance that will be sought as this decision is made.”

But Democrats and those in the abortion rights community are worried about the decision the president might make and the possible impact on his re-election.

“There’s a high level of concern,” a prominent Democrat with ties to the White House told ABC News, “although the White House has been aggressive in reaching out to the women’s community to make it clear that no decision has been reached.”

The policy concern surrounds “what many would see as a significant expansion of the definition for the exemption,” the Democrat said. “The political concern is that it will make it more difficult to run against the Republican nominee whoever he or she may be on this issue of protecting women’s health. The real concern is that there’s even a discussion about this!”

Earlier this month, President Obama met with Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has been lobbying hard for an exemption, having called the requirement “an unprecedented attack on religious liberty.”

There were many topics discussed in that meeting, a source says, but this issue was among them.

Abortion rights groups point out that there is an exemption in the rule for religious organizations.

But a bulletin the Bishops sent out criticizes the religious exemption in the rule as “so extremely narrow…it protects almost no one. It covers only a ‘religious employer’ that has the ‘inculcation of religious values’ as its purpose, primarily employs and serves persons who share its religious tenets, and is a church organization under two narrow provisions of the tax code.” Catholic colleges, universities, hospitals, and charitable organizations will not qualify, the Bishops say.

Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, told ABC News that her organization’s biggest concern is with the narrowing of the definition of “religious employer.”

Keehan maintained that allowing the hospitals and universities an exemption would impact only a small percentage of women, given how many states and localities require health insurance to cover contraception.  As for the women it would impact, “these are women who have freely applied to work at Catholic hospitals and universities,” she said. “There are certain things you know go with the package.”

-Jake Tapper

*This post has been updated.