Birth Control Ruling Is A Setback For White House

The Obama administration is looking for another way to promote broader access to birth control, now that the Supreme Court has struck down a key provision of the Affordable Care Act.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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And I'm David Greene. Good morning. The Obama Administration is now looking for another way to promote broader access to birth control. This comes after yesterday's Supreme Court decision that closely held corporations don't have to include contraceptive coverage in employee health insurance, that is if the company's owners have a religious objection. Here's NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores had challenged the contraceptive mandate, arguing some forms of birth control violate the family-owned company's religious beliefs. Attorney Mark Rienzi is with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

MARK RIENZI: Today's decision is a big win for freedom in America. The court confirmed that Americans don't give up their religious freedom when they open a family business.

HORSLEY: But critics complain the owner's win comes at the expense of Hobby Lobby's employees. Marcia Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center says some of those employees may not share the owner's religious faith, and they're the ones losing access to low-cost birth control.

MARCIA GREENBERGER: This decision is a bitter pill for women to swallow.

HORSLEY: In a concurring opinion that tipped the balance in the 5-4 case, Justice Anthony Kennedy stressed that he sided with the owners of Hobby Lobby because there are other less burdensome ways for the government to ensure access to birth control. Kennedy notes the Administration has already fashioned a workaround for nonprofit religious employers, in which their insurance carriers provide the contraceptive coverage. Some religious employers aren't satisfied with that, though. And The Becket Fund's Mark Rienzi notes the workaround is facing its own legal challenges.

RIENZI: I think anything that forces unwilling religious believers to be part of this system is not going to pass the test.

HORSLEY: The Obama Administration is still weighing its options. White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggests a legislative response may be necessary.

JOSH EARNEST: What we're talking about doing is pressing Congress to actually take the step that's required to address this problem, to make sure that the women who work for these companies have access to the preventative coverage that they deserve, and that the Institute of Medicine that's run by impartial nonpolitical scientists believes that they should have access to.

HORSLEY: It was the Institute of Medicine, not Congress, that decided once the Affordable Care Act was passed that birth control should be covered under workplace health plans. Dr. Linda Rosenstock of UCLA chaired the Institute committee that made that recommendation.

LINDA ROSENSTOCK: There are approximately 6 million pregnancies every year in the United States. About half of those are unintended. And what we know about unintended pregnancies is that decreasing them is a benefit both to the women and to their children.

HORSLEY: Rosenstock notes that 40 percent of unintended pregnancies end in abortion, some of which might be avoided with wider access to birth control. The Supreme Court acknowledged the government has a compelling interest in promoting such access, then suggested the government might just pay for that coverage itself.

DONALD CRITCHLOW: In effect, that's what was happening in the 1960s.

HORSLEY: Historian Donald Critchlow is the author of "Intended Consequences: Birth Control, Abortion and the Federal Government." In the 1960s, he says, there was broad bipartisan support for birth control. Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman were honorary co-chairs of Planned Parenthood. And a Texas congressman named George H.W. Bush was among the biggest birth control backers. By the 1970s, though, that contraceptive consensus was swept up in the battle over abortion.

CRITCHLOW: Obviously, the issue became politicized. Republican strategists saw it as a wedge issue to go after Democrats.

HORSLEY: Four decades later, any big push by the federal government to provide widespread birth control directly seems unlikely. Still, Marcia Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center suggests the political battle is not over.

GREENBERGER: This Supreme Court interpretation by five justices will not stand in the political arena when women stand up for their rights.

HORSLEY: For the White House, which is counting on women's vote to help Democratic congressional candidates in November, that may be one small consolation from a big loss in the Supreme Court. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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