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Anti-abortion Democrats push for wider exceptions to contraceptive coverage

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Brendan Hoffman Bloomberg Democratic legislators are furiously lobbying the White House to hold the line on a health reform regulation that requires insurance companies to provide contraceptives without co-pay, my colleague N.C. Aizenman reported this morning.

The fight hinges over whether to expand a “conscience clause" exemption from the requirement to cover faith-based organizations like universities and hospitals. Democrats have spent the past week urging the administration not to do so.

But the party isn’t totally united here: At the same time as some Democrats are lobbying the administration to stand firm, other Democrats who supported the health reform law, but tend to oppose abortion rights, are pushing the White House to expand the religious exemption clause.

“The people pushing hardest [to expand the conscience clause] are those of us who support health care reform and don’t want to give it another reason to be challenged in court,” says Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, which works with many anti-abortion legislators. “Our coalition is really working very hard on this.”

Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Robert Casey (D-Penn.), both of whom oppose abortion rights, have become active on the issue.

Casey is generally a strong supporter of bills that increase access to contraceptives. But this regulation, he argues, would go too far in required provision of birth control. “Religious affiliated institutions like hospitals and universities should not be forced to buy health insurance policies that cover procedures or pharmaceuticals that are contrary to their religious beliefs,” says Casey spokeswoman April Mellody. “He has expressed these views to the administration.”

Former legislators have also lobbied the White House on the issue, including former Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper. Dahlkemper was among the handful of anti-abortion Democrats who, led by former Rep. Bart Stupak, supported the health reform law after President Obama issued an executive order barring tax-payer funding of abortion under the law.

“I have made calls [to White House staff] who told me they were aware of the controversy and, from my understanding, they were going to fix it,” Dahlkemper said in a recent interview, noting she’d spoken with administration officials as recently as last week. “I have concerns now that there’s been a lot of push back from the pro-choice groups, that they won’t fix it.”

The fight is far from over: With many expecting a decision by the end of the year, they say now is the key time to push the White House on the issue. “We have been working day and night making sure the White House understands implications of expanding this refusal rule,” says NARAL Pro-Choice American president Nancy Keenan. “Our activists are all weighing in. It’s critical they hear from the American public.”

On the other side, activists are gearing up for an equally hard fought battle. “There’s a real ramping up among organizations who are concerned about expanding such a rule,” says Stephen Schneck, a professor at Catholic University of America. Schneck, who supported the Affordable Care Act, has organized legislators to lobby for a more expansive conscience clause.

“We’re trying to organize some people on the Hill to reach out in a fashion parallel to what the pro-choice legislators are doing, the calls they’ve made,” he says. “I can say for sure we’re trying to do something very similar to that.”

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