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The Senate has defeated narrowly an effort to roll back President Obama's policy requiring most insurers to offer no-cost contraceptives. Republicans have been arguing the issue is a matter religious freedom.

But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports they were narrowly trumped by those arguing in favor of women's health.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Republicans came out swinging against the contraceptive rule in today's Senate floor debate. Even after it was amended last month to satisfy some religious employers, said Utah's Orrin Hatch, it still goes too far.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: This amendment is necessary because of ObamaCare, the health care law that manifests new threats to personal liberty and individual rights with each passing week.

ROVNER: But the proposal would not just apply to contraceptives and it would not just apply to insurance companies. It would have allowed any health insurer or employer to decline to offer any benefit that is, quote, "contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the plan's sponsor."

The bill's sponsor, Missouri Republican Roy Blunt, defended the scope of that language.

SENATOR ROY BLUNT: If you are of a faith that believes that something is absolutely wrong, as an employer, why would you want to pay for that?

ROVNER: But Democrats like California's Barbara Boxer were quick to pounce with what ifs about what employers might be able to do with that policy.

SENATOR BARBARA BOXER: We believe prayer is the answer. We don't believe in chemotherapy. We believe that, you know, if someone is heavy and they're obese and they get diabetes, we have a moral objection to helping them because, you know what, they didn't lead a clean life.

ROVNER: Still, the debate never strayed too far from the issue at hand, access to contraceptives for women. Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders said sponsors of the amendment were trying to roll back the clock on women's reproductive rights.

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: If the United States Senate had 83 women and 17 men rather than 83 men and 17 women, my strong guess is that a bill like this would never even make it to the floor.

ROVNER: But others, like Louisiana Republican David Vitter, said the debate has been mischaracterized by the media.

SENATOR DAVID VITTER: This isn't merely about contraception. It's about abortion. It's about abortion-inducing drugs, like Plan B.

ROVNER: For the record, Plan B, the so-called Morning After Pill, is classified by the FDA as a contraceptive. It's not the same as the abortion pill, RU-486, but one of the ways Plan B may work is by preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg into a woman's uterus. So for those who believe that life begins at fertilization of egg and sperm, that drug could be considered to cause very early abortions and that has added to the controversy.

But, still, it's a debate that Democrats like Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin mostly welcome.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN: The vote today should be a clear message to those who are following that if we take extreme positions from the social agenda that we hear so often in these Republican primaries and bring them to a vote, common sense and majority feeling in America will prevail.

ROVNER: In fact, the 51-48 vote was closer than the 63 percent majority that supports the contraceptive coverage requirement. That's according to a new poll out today from the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. The poll also found, however, that half of those surveyed think the whole issue is being blown up now largely because of election year politics. But now that it's on the agenda, expect both sides to continue to pursue the religious freedom and contraception issues as the campaign season wears on.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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