Political turmoil over abortion and birth control spread suddenly on Tuesday. A high-ranking official resigned from the Komen breast-cancer charity after its backtracking treaty with Planned Parenthood, and Republican presidential candidates blistered the Obama administration for a recent ruling on Catholic hospitals and contraception.
The White House made a point of declaring it wanted to ease the concerns of church-affiliated employers -- many would be required to provide birth control coverage to their workers under the new rules -- but there was no word on how those concerns might be addressed.
The two-track drama pumped new furor into longstanding disputes that sometimes take a backseat in political campaigns because the lines are so familiar and firmly drawn. Last week's Komen-Planned Parenthood dispute stirred many women's groups that support legal abortion. And the Obama ruling touched a nerve with moderate Roman Catholics who support contraceptives but also defend their church's right to run its hospitals and other institutions according to religious convictions.
Republican presidential candidates pounced on what they considered a blunder by President Barack Obama. They believe his administration's ruling will alienate moderate Catholic voters who could prove crucial in November in Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
There also could be political repercussions from the Susan G. Komen for the Cure controversy. The breast-cancer charity, facing fierce criticism, mostly from women's groups, quickly overturned its decision to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood is a major provider of abortions, but it also screens women for breast cancer and other health problems.
In Atlanta, Karen Handel, a Komen vice president who played a role in the fund cutoff decision, resigned Tuesday. A Republican who ran for governor in Georgia, Handel was seen by some as an example of what they felt was an increasing tendency by Komen to bring partisan politics into the charity's decisions.
"I am deeply disappointed by the gross mischaracterizations of the strategy, its rationale and my involvement in it," Handel said in her resignation letter.
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, for his part, said he supported Komen's original decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood.
The arguments came as the GOP presidential hopefuls campaigned in several states and Republicans voted in Colorado and Minnesota. Each candidate tried to take advantage of the unusually intense focus on reproductive issues.
Romney, a Mormon, decried Obama's "assault on religion," telling Colorado voters the new contraception ruling was "a real blow ... to our friends in the Catholic faith."
Newt Gingrich, a Catholic, told Ohio Republicans, "There has been a lot of talk about the Obama administration's attack on the Catholic Church."
But Gingrich, who is struggling to narrow Romney's lead in the GOP nomination race, also turned his fire on the former Massachusetts governor. "Governor Romney insisted that Catholic hospitals give out abortion pills, against their religious belief, when he was governor," Gingrich said.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, also a strong anti-abortion advocate and a Catholic, made similar remarks about Romney in a written article Tuesday.
As governor, Romney enforced a law that required all Massachusetts hospitals, including Catholic ones, to provide emergency contraception to rape victims. Some Catholics say the so-called morning-after pill is a form of abortion. Romney said he did not support the law, which passed despite his veto. But he also said at the time, "My personal view, in my heart of hearts, is that people who are subject to rape should have the option of having emergency contraception or emergency contraception information."
Romney may have given Gingrich and Santorum a new opening Tuesday when he likened "morning-after pills" to "abortive pills." Romney supported legalized abortion when he ran for Senate and governor in Massachusetts, but he now opposes it.
The White House and Obama's re-election campaign endured another day of sharp debate over the contraception ruling, which falls under preventive-health measures attached to the 2010 health care overhaul. Church-affiliated employers' health insurance plans will have to cover birth control, regardless of the institutions' religious principles. Churches are not covered by the rule, but affiliated employers such as colleges and hospitals are.
The ruling follows the Institute of Medicine's recommendation to treat birth control as preventive health because it promotes maternal and child health by allowing women to space their pregnancies. For religious-affiliated employers, the requirement will take effect in mid-2013.
Workplace health plans will have to cover all forms of contraception approved by the Food and Drug Administration, including the birth control pill, implantable devices, sterilization and the morning-after pill. There is no mandate to cover abortions.
Last Sunday, Catholic bishops in more than 140 dioceses issued denunciations of the decision that were read at weekend Masses.
Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association -- which supported Obama's 2010 health care law -- summed up the feeling of some moderate Catholics who say political analysts are missing the point.
"It's not the issue of contraception but religious freedom," she said. "It's not about preventing women from buying anything themselves, but telling the church what it has to buy, and the potential for that to go further."
Wall Street Journal editorial writer Peggy Noonan said the contraception ruling might cost Obama the election.
But Jen Psaki, a former Obama aide, said millions of American women, including Catholics, see it differently.
"This is about one issue, and that is making sure all women, especially those who can't afford it, have access to health care," said Psaki, who is Catholic. "And if Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich continue to make a political issue out of such an important human right, they risk jumping the shark with women voters of all political stripes."
Groups on the left and right raced into the debate.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he hopes the Obama administration "backs down on this rule that violates conscience. If not, we'll do everything in our power to repeal it."
NARAL Pro-Choice America defended the new ruling.
"This is one of the biggest victories for women's health in a generation," said Nancy Keenan, its president. "Nurses, janitorial staff and professors who work at colleges and universities that do not currently cover birth control will get access to contraception."
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney didn't say how employers' concerns might be addressed, though he said there were a lot of ideas for doing it.
He said Obama's focus is making sure that women employed by Catholic-affiliated employers like hospitals, colleges or charities are able to get contraception. At the same time, Carney said Obama wants to respect religious beliefs and convictions.
David Axelrod, a top political aide to Obama, hinted at possible adjustments to the rule or its application. He told MSNBC the administration didn't intend to "abridge anyone's religious freedom."
"This is an important issue," Axelrod said. "It's important for millions of women around the country. We want to resolve it in an appropriate way, and we're going to do that."
Santorum suggested this week that efforts to reach an accord won't be easy.
"The Catholic Church has been arguing and negotiating this for a year, and the administration is saying `it's just a misunderstanding,'" Santorum said while campaigning in Colorado. "It's just a bunch of bull. They are folks who are trying to use their power to force people to do things that they believe they should do and are right. They don't care about their religion."
Speaking at a 2006 Call to Renewal conference, organized by the religious anti-poverty group Sojourners, Obama said secular Americans were wrong to ask churchgoers to "leave their religion at the door before entering the public square."
But Obama also said religious groups must be recognize "ground rules for collaboration" and the importance of the separation of church and state.
Associated Press writers Rachel Zoll in New York, Donna Cassata in Washington and Philip Elliott and Steve Peoples in Colorado contributed to this report.