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Access to contraceptives can curb abortion

For nearly four decades, advocates for reproductive rights have been stuck fighting an ugly, expensive and sometimes dangerous campaign to ensure that women have access to safe and legal abortions. It's a Groundhog's Day sort of battle in which both proponents for choice and the opposing camp -- rigid anti-abortionists -- trot out the same arguments over and over, with neither side persuading the other.

It's also a largely unnecessary battle that I once thought would be relegated to the footnotes of history by the early 21st century. That's because medical science long ago provided a solution to the problem of unplanned pregnancies: safe and easy-to-use contraception.

But the last couple of weeks have reminded me how wrong I was. Even as Planned Parenthood was showing its resilience, a new battle broke out in the same fraught territory: Should the Affordable Care Act require religious employers to upgrade their health insurance plans to provide free contraceptives?

Rolling out regulations for the new health care law, the Obama administration answered with a clear "yes." Its policy exempts churches, but would cover large Catholic-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and universities. You know by now that the rule ignited a firestorm of opposition from Catholic bishops, who, based on Vatican teachings, oppose any birth control methods beyond abstinence.

They contend that the policy represents a gross violation of their First Amendment rights to exercise their religious beliefs freely; Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail, many of whom have pledged to battle the Affordable Health Care Act to an early grave, quickly joined in. The White House has also been criticized by a few Democrats, including former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a Catholic currently running for the U.S. Senate.

Their objections are not to be taken lightly. Religious freedom is a cornerstone of this great democracy, one of the founding principles that separate us from much of the world.

But religious freedom, like the others granted by the Bill of Rights, is not absolute. Child welfare authorities, for example, have intervened on behalf of minor children with serious illnesses whose parents have religious objections to medical care, and courts have often ruled that those children be treated.

Besides, 28 states already have similar measures that require insurers to offer contraception, and Catholic institutions operate in those states. Those rules sometimes caused controversy, as Michelle Goldberg notes at The Daily Beast, quoting Cardinal Edward Egan's opposition to the New York law, passed in 2002.

"We will not be daunted by the abortion and contraception extremists whose aggressive agenda includes putting the Catholic Church out of the business of providing health care and social services throughout the state of New York," Egan said.

Yet, federal courts upheld the law, and Catholic institutions still flourish throughout New York state. They have found a way to abide by laws meant to support a broader societal goal, whether ending gender discrimination or expanding health care.

Obama has signaled a willingness to look for a compromise that may satisfy the U.S. Conference of Bishops, and I hope he does so -- so long as he doesn't gut the protections offered under the new health care law. This rule doesn't go into effect for organizations affiliated with religious groups until 2013, so there is plenty of time for reasonable people to seek ways to protect religious freedom while also expanding access to contraceptives.

But the bishops may not want any compromise. If they don't, Obama should proceed with the new rule.

About half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which promotes reproductive health. About 40 percent of those end in abortion. If you want to curb abortion, then you have to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies. It's simple enough.

For those of us who have grown weary of the abortion wars, broad contraceptive use -- encouraged by the Affordable Care Act -- offers a rational way to turn down the temperature on a difficult and divisive issue. Since a new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute shows a majority of Catholics approve of Obama's rule, I'll bet many of them agree.

Email Cynthia Tucker at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.