Obama was criticised for approving regulations that compel religious organisations to include morning-after pills and other contraceptives in employee health insurance coverage.
Over the weekend, Catholic clergy across the country called for congregations to protest the rule and pressure the administration to back down. Republican presidential candidates have also criticised the rule.
The Obama administration now says it is willing to work with Catholic universities and hospitals in implementing rules that require the health insurance, a top adviser to the president’s re-election campaign said yesterday.
Signalling room for compromise, David Axelrod said such institutions have a grace period to find a way to include health insurance coverage for contraception as part of the US healthcare overhaul without going against Catholic doctrine.
“We certainly don’t want to abridge anyone’s religious freedom, so we’re going to look for a way to move forward that both guarantees women that basic preventive care that they need and respects the prerogatives of religious institutions,” he said.
His comments come amid a backlash from Catholic Church officials, who say the move will force affiliated institutions to go against Church teachings.
But polls show a large majority of US Catholics ignore church teaching against contraceptives. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 98% of Catholics already use some form of birth control.
Catholics are about a quarter of the US populations, with large blocs in such battleground states as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all won by Obama in 2008.
The Obama administration’s healthcare overhaul, passed in 2010, calls for health insurance to cover basic preventative services for women.
The Institute of Medicine, an independent arm of the National Academy of Sciences that advises Congress and others on health issues, had recommended covering a fuller range of contraceptive services to help prevent unwanted pregnancies.
US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius adopted the institute’s recommendation but included an exemption for churches, although not related religious organisations such as hospitals.
Axelrod did not signal that the administration would reverse course, but did show signs that it had heard the Church’s concerns and would work with it.
“The real question is how do we get together and resolve this in a way that respects the concerns that have been raised but also assures women across this country that they’re going to get the preventive care that they need,” he said.
Under the healthcare law, failure by institutions to provide morning-after pills and other contraceptives in employee health insurance coverage would result in fines that larger Catholic organisations claim would cost millions of dollars a year.
The row could damage Obama’s support in November’s presidential election among Catholic voters. Timothy Dolan, Cardinal-designate of New York and president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged Catholics to bring political pressure to bear.
“Let your elected leaders know that you want religious liberty and rights of conscience restored and that you want the administration’s contraceptive mandate rescinded,” he said.
“It’s not about contraception. It’s about the right of conscience.
“The government doesn’t have the right to butt into the internal governance and teachings of the Church,” he said.
“This is going to be fought out with lawsuits, with court decisions, and, dare I say it, maybe even in the streets,” Dolan said.
Republican presidential candidates New Gingrich and Rick Santorum seized on the issue, criticising the move as misguided and anti-Catholic.
“He has basically declared war on the Catholic Church,” said Gingrich. “I think there are millions of people who are very disturbed by it.”