US & Canada

Obama compromise amid Catholic contraception anger

The White House has announced modified plans to require all women to have access to contraception, attempting to stem anger from Catholic leaders.

US President Barack Obama said the policy "saves lives and saves money".

Catholic leaders have been angered by the new rule, which required church-linked institutions to offer health insurance including birth control.

But the White House changed the scheme to allow health insurers to provide cover directly if employers object.

"No woman's health should depend on who she is or where she works," President Obama said, speaking at the White House.

The adjustment to the policy would mean Americans would not have to choose between "religious liberty and basic fairness", he said.

Catholic outrage

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who labelled the policy "an unprecedented incursion into freedom of conscience" inan editorial in the Wall Street Journal, gave a tepid welcome to the developments.

Image caption Religious-linked institutions would not have to offer contraception to employees under the new plan

In a blog post, the archbishop said: "While there may be an openness to respond to some of our concerns, we reserve judgement on the details until we have them."

Under the new plan put forward by the White House, health insurance companies, rather than the employer, will be required to offer contraception directly to employees of religious-linked institutions if requested.

The institutions - such as universities or hospitals - would not be required to subsidise the cost of offering birth control to their employees, nor would they be asked to refer them to organisations that provide it.

Women could obtain contraceptives directly from their insurance provider, free of charge, the White House said.

The adjustment to the policy "accommodates religious liberty while protecting the health of women", the White House added.

Institutions will have one year to phase in the new scheme.

Churches and other houses of worship had already been given a waiver under the law, but arms-length institutions including universities and hospitals were not exempt.

The rule stemmed from the terms of the Affordable Care Act, the healthcare reform bill passed amid partisan rancour in 2010. The White House says most states already have similar laws relating to contraception on their books.

The debate has pushed social issues to the fore during an election season so far dominated by the US economy, correspondents say.

Outraged Catholic leaders said that the provision would force them to violate religious beliefs.

Under the original terms of the ruling, Church-linked institutions would have had to cover birth control costs in their health insurance plans.

But critics have argued this would impinge on religious institutions' constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Word of the compromise came shortly after top Republicans joined the outcry against the contraception rule.

"It's not about contraception, it's about economic liberty, it's about freedom of speech, it's about freedom of religion, it's about government control of your lives," presidential contender Rick Santorum said at a conservative summit on Friday. "It's got to stop."

On Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner called for legislation to prevent the rule coming into force.

The uproar began over the weekend, after US Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius defended the policy in an editorial for USA Today.

The Obama administration has sought to portray the issue as a balance between religious freedoms and preventing discrimination under the new healthcare law.

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