The National Organization for Women (NOW), the largest organization of feminist activists in the U.S., has joined reproductive rights advocates in asking President Obama to not cave in to pressure from the Catholic leaders asking that he strike a recent decision that increases access to birth control for women.

A couple of months ago, a federal health agency announced it would require health insurance companies to cover contraception as preventive care — which would remove co-payments. A final decision on whether the administration will stand its ground and keep the policy is expected sometime this week.

Women’s health advocates have feared the president will capitulate to the demands of some of the biggest opponents to the policy: Catholic bishops.

The bishops’ demands have ranged from asking the policy be stricken “in its entirety” to asking that the rule allow a broad exemption for religious objectors. Catholic leaders have said the existing exemption is “too limited” and might leave out Catholic hospitals.

Women’s groups — including NOW — are asking the president to not give in.

According to NOW’s recent press release:

The National Organization for Women calls on the Obama administration to stand up for women and not give in to demands from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that would deny birth control coverage for millions of women. The bishops have been lobbying the administration to expand a religious exemption that would allow a broad range of religiously affiliated organizations, such as colleges and hospitals, to take contraception coverage away from women who rely on them for health insurance. NOW calls on the president to remove the exemption altogether.

A recent poll by Thomson Reuters-NPR Health found that 77 percent of Americans believe private medical insurance should provide birth control without co-pays. Ninety-nine percent of sexually active women have used contraception, including 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women, as reported by the Guttmacher Institute. Yet this important health benefit could be lost for more than a million women and their families, and the decision will soon be made by the Obama administration.

The ill-considered proposed refusal clause in the women’s birth control benefit undermines women’s access to basic health care. NOW urges President Obama and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to say ‘yes’ to contraceptive coverage for all women and ‘no’ to the bishops’ relentless attempts to deny women their rights.

Despite the large percentage of religious women using birth control, Catholic leaders have frequently displayed how opposed to the decision they are. Recently, a Catholic priest in St. Petersburg threatened to cut health insurance benefits from employees in his diocese as a form of “civil disobedience” to challenge the decision.

Jon O’Brien, the president of Catholics for Choice, has said the majority of Catholic women have not been convinced by the church’s hard-line on birth control, which is why Catholic leaders seek to influence public policy so heavily.

“What’s really going on,” O’Brien said, “is that they have failed to convince Catholics in their own churches. So, [the bishops] have to go through political lobbying to stop Catholics from using contraception.”

For many women, steep co-pays have deterred them from purchasing family planning services in the past.

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