WASHINGTON, D.C. - (AP) - President Barack Obama declared Friday he's found a solution to a birth-control uproar that will protect religious liberty but also ensure that women have access to free contraception, as he rushed to defuse an election-year issue that threatened to overtake his administration.
Capping weeks of growing controversy, Obama announced he was backing off a newly announced requirement for religious employers to provide free birth control coverage even if it runs counter to their religious beliefs. Instead, workers at such institutions will be able to get free contraception directly from health insurance companies.
"Religious liberty will be protected and a law that requires free preventative care will not discriminate against women," Obama said in an appearance in the White House briefing room.
"I understand some folks in Washington want to treat this as another political wedge issue. But it shouldn't be. I certainly never saw it that way," Obama said. "This is an issue where people of good will on both sides of the debate have been sorting through some very complicated questions."
Obama's abrupt shift was an attempt to satisfy both sides of a deeply sensitive debate, and most urgently, to end a mounting political nightmare for the White House.
Although the administration had originally given itself more than year to work out the details of the new birth control coverage requirement for religious employers, the president acknowledged that the situation had become untenable and demanded a swift solution.
Congressional Republicans as well as GOP presidential hopefuls were beating up on Obama relentlessly over the issue, and even Democrats and liberal groups allied with the Roman Catholic church were defecting.
"After the many genuine concerns that have been raised over the last few weeks, as well as frankly the more cynical desire on the part of some to make this into a political football, it became clear that spending months hammering out a solution was not going to be an option. That we needed to move this faster," Obama said. He said that he directed the Department of Health and Human Services last week to speed up the process from a matter of months to days.
Women will still get guaranteed access to birth control without co-pays or premiums no matter where they work, a provision of Obama's health care law that he insisted must remain. But religious universities and hospitals that see contraception as an unconscionable violation of their faith can refuse to cover it, and insurance companies will then have to step in to do so.
The leader of a Catholic organization and a prominent women's group both expressed initial support for the changes.
"The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed," Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, a trade group representing Catholic hospitals that had fought against the birth control requirement, said in a statement.