Democrats applaud as controversial mandate on birth control begins

Senate Democrats and the Obama administration on Tuesday hailed the beginning of new rules that will require free preventive healthcare services for women, including the controversial mandate to provide birth control. 

Obama officials said the rules stemming from the healthcare reform law, which goes into effect Wednesday, will provide critical care to 47 million women.

"No woman should have to choose between seeing a doctor and putting food on the table for her family," said Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, "and now many women will not have to make that difficult choice any longer."

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The new rules mandate that most employers give women access to prevention-related services, including birth control, in their health plans without co-pays. 

Most women will have access to the benefits after their insurance plans are next renewed, according to HHS. 

Senate Democrats argued that the new benefits, such as wellness and HIV screenings, are morally and fiscally vital. 

"During the healthcare debate, we wanted to do two things: save lives and save money," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the preventive-care measure's original author.

"Women all over America will now have access to care that they've fought for for so long."

The benefits include counseling for women who are breastfeeding, victims of domestic violence, or at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.

The policy is controversial among religious groups that object to birth control or see some forms as equivalent to abortion.

Twenty-four lawsuits have been filed to stop it, and Republicans have taken up the charge, arguing that the Obama administration is trampling religious freedom.

Under the policy, churches and houses of worship are exempt altogether. Employees of some religiously affiliated institutions, such as Catholic hospitals and schools, will receive birth control directly from their insurance company, still without a co-pay.

For those that qualify for the administration's one-year "safe harbor," the policy will not take effect on Wednesday.