Planned Parenthood Defends Obama Against Catholic Criticism

(Credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Following a barrage of criticism of the Obama administration from the Catholic Church, Planned Parenthood today launched a national TV ad campaign praising newly mandated contraception coverage in health insurance plans, including those offered by religiously affiliated institutions.

"President Obama and Secretary Sebelius stood strong to make sure all women - no matter where they work - will have access to birth control without a co-pay, saving them hundreds of dollars," the narrator says in the 30-second spot. (You can view it HERE.)

The move has been celebrated by women's rights groups - key supporters of Obama's re-election bid - but vigorously opposed by Catholic groups, who say the requirement violates religious liberty.  Catholic teaching opposes contraception.

Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards dismissed the Catholic concerns about the new policy in a statement accompanying the ad, saying that birth control use is "nearly universal in the U.S., even among Catholic women."

Richards cites an April 2011 Guttmacher Institute study that found 98 percent of Catholic women reported using birth control at some point in their lives. She also notes an NPR report that many Catholic hospitals and universities already offer health insurance plans that provide birth control coverage to their employees.

"Planned Parenthood respects religious freedom and believes that neither government nor employers should intrude on individuals' ability to practice their own religions or faiths, including their personal decisions about health care," Richards said.

The TV ad will air in West Palm Beach, Fla.; Cedar Rapids, Ia.; Lansing, Mich.; Reno, Nev.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Toledo, Ohio.; Charlottesville, Va.; and Madison, Wis.

Meanwhile, Catholic activists and church leaders are vowing to fight the new rules.

"We cannot - we will not - comply with this unjust law," Thomas Olmsted, Bishop of Phoenix, wrote in a letter to parishioners Sunday.  "People of faith cannot be made second-class citizens."

"This is a direct attack on our religious freedom and our First Amendment rights," Atlanta archbishop Wilton Gregory said in a letter. "I will work with the bishops, other religious leaders and our fellow Americans to remove this unjust regulation."

The move could also have consequences for Obama in November.

"I don't think Catholic liberals are en masse going to leave Obama but they are disappointed," Mathew N. Schmalz, a professor of religion and comparative studies at the College of  the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., told ABC News. "High-profile Catholics who have supported Obama are put in a more difficult position because of this."