U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday announced that his administration found a solution that will protect religious liberty but also ensures that women have access to free birth control, as he rushed to defuse an election-year political uproar that threatened to overtake his administration.
Currently, nearly 99 percent of all women have used contraception at some point in their lives, but more than half of all women between the ages of 18 to 34 struggle to afford it, the White House said in a statement.
The Obama announcement comes after weeks of controversy, as 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 birth control coverage 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 a brief 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."
"The policy also ensures that if a woman works for religious employers with objections to providing contraceptive services as part of its health plan, the religious employer will not be required to provide contraception coverage, but her insurance company will be required to offer contraceptive care free of charge," the White House said.
"The new policy ensures women can get contraception without paying a co-pay and addresses important concerns raised by religious groups by ensuring that objecting religious employers will not have to provide contraceptive coverage or refer women to organizations that provide contraception," the statement read.
The decision comes as the White House was being hammered by Republicans and the Catholic Church on the rule that requires religious schools and hospitals to provide employees with access to free birth control.
The White House on Friday released a statement saying that Sr. Carol Keehan, DC, president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association of the United States (CHA) approved of the administration's decision.
Obama's chief spokesman and his top campaign strategist both said the administration was searching for ways to allay the concern of Roman Catholics who say the birth control mandate would force them to violate their religious beliefs against contraception. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the policy was a "huge mistake" that the administration should reconsider. "And if they don't, Congress will act," McConnell said.
On the campaign trail, GOP presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich heaped new criticism on the president, with Romney accusing Obama of an "assault on religion" and Gingrich calling the rule an "attack on the Catholic Church."
Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl lashed out in a letter against "the assault on religious liberty" adding that forcing a group to pay for the very contraceptives and abortion drugs it condemns is unthinkable.