Left signals support after WH tweak to contraception policy

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 18: Cecile Richards attends the 50 & Fabulous celebration of 50 years women's advances since the pill at The Pierre Hotel on October 18, 2010 in New York City. Photo by Andy Kropa/Getty Images for Communications Strategies

Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards on October 18, 2010.
Photo by Andy Kropa/Getty Images for Communications Strategies

UPDATED 4:19 p.m. ET

Liberals on Friday signaled continued support for the Obama administration's tweak in policy surrounding religious institutions' requirements for contraceptive coverage, with key women's health advocates like Planned Parenthood arguing that women will continue to have equal access to health care under the new rules.

"We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman's ability to access these critical birth control benefits," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood.

Richards emphasized, however, that the prominent women's health organization would be "vigilant in holding the administration and the institutions accountable for a rigorous, fair and consistent implementation of the policy, which does not compromise the essential principles of access to care."

"The individual rights and liberties of all women and all employees in accessing basic preventive health care is our fundamental concern," she said in a written statement.

Amid continued controversy surrounding the administration's previous mandate - which exempted explicitly religious institutions such as houses of worship but would have mandated contraceptive coverage from religiously-affiliated institutions including schools and hospitals - the White House changed its course slightly.

Mr. Obama announced in a press conference Friday that the government will not force religiously-affiliated institutions to directly provide birth control coverage as part of their employees' health care coverage, but that women who work at such institutions will still be covered.

Instead, female employees of these religiously-affiliated institutions will have access to no-cost contraceptive coverage through the employee's health insurer, who will be required to offer the coverage for free. Religious organizations will not be required to refer women to the contraception coverage or subsidize it.

A handful of Democratic senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Washington's Patty Murray and Vermont's Patrick Leahy, were quick to throw the president their support.

"The rule announced by President Obama today guarantees that all women will have access to free contraception coverage through their employers, while protecting the religious freedom of faith-based institutions," said Reid in a statement.

Murray, also in a statement, added that "My highest priority here is ensuring contraceptive access and coverage for all women, and I believe this accommodation meets that goal."

And Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat who was critical of the initial decision, said he still needs to "review the details of today's announcement to determine whether it strikes the right balance."

"I appreciate the administration's attempt to find a solution to protect religious liberty," Casey said. "I also appreciate those who have proposed other remedies."

The White House's initial policy incited the ire of a number of Republicans, who decried the decision as encroaching on religious freedom.

Two senators, Republican Marco Rubio and the moderate Democrat Joe Manchin, had gone so far as to propose legislation designed to reverse the rule.

In a statement following the announcement, Rubio said it was "good" that Mr. Obama had amended the rule, but that Americans' rights would continue to be "threatened by the Administration's policy goals."

"It's good that the President reaffirmed that the Federal government cannot force faith-based institutions to provide services that they teach are wrong," Rubio said. "Unfortunately, as more of these rules are written, our Constitutional rights will continue to be threatened by the Administration's policy goals."

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