The Obama administration announced Friday it would stand by a policy that requires virtually all private insurance policies to cover family planning, including female contraceptives, essentially guaranteeing near universal access to birth control once all the provisions of the Affordable Care Act are implemented.
Friday's decision comes after the White House was lobbied by religious organizations for an expanded exemption to the rule that would have allowed employers who are opposed to birth control to deny it to their employees.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius granted these groups an additional year to comply with the new rule but did not broaden its exemption, which allows only churches and religious non-profits that hire exclusively within their faith to avoid the family planning requirement.
"All women should have access to contraceptive coverage, regardless of where they work," Nancy Keenan, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, explained in an advisory. "The administration stood firm against intensive lobbying efforts from anti-birth-control organizations trying to expand the refusal option even further to allow organizations and corporations to deny their employees contraceptive coverage. As a result, millions will get access to contraception—and they will not have to ask their bosses for permission."
The administration's refusal to weaken the rule deals a blow to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who'd insisted that the administration must exclude religious employers. “The bishops pulled out all the stops in their campaign against women’s access to contraception," Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, explained in an advisory.
Despite the bishops' opposition, "the Obama administration stood with those who support religious liberty and believe in giving women the freedom of conscience to make their own reproductive health decisions," he added. "Catholics for Choice and our colleagues in the reproductive rights movement expended a huge amount of energy and resources mobilizing the public to take action on this pivotal issue. In the final analysis, this was a victory for common sense and scientific advice in the interests of the common good."
While Friday's decision was indeed a victory for pro-choice activists, the Obama administration in December shot down a proposed rule that would have made birth control pills available over the counter and without an age restriction, even though the pills are less toxic than the common painkiller Tylenol. Over the counter sales of Plan B had previously been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
The family planning requirement for private insurance is set to take effect August 1.