The American Debate: Obama getting a boost from GOP's stance on birth control

What President Obama is doing, in accordance with the federal health-overhaul law, is nothing new. (AP File Photo)
What President Obama is doing, in accordance with the federal health-overhaul law, is nothing new. (AP File Photo)
Posted: February 19, 2012

It's hard to fathom why the Republicans would want to launch a sustained assault on birth control, align themselves with the most conservative voices in the Catholic Church, and thereby risk alienating women voters in November. But, hey, if that's how they want to play it, President Obama is only too happy to reap the benefits.

I've been puzzled for weeks by all the talk about how Obama has supposedly blown it with Catholic voters after requiring that many Catholic institutions offer free birth control in their employee insurance plans. Church leaders are naturally upset, but they don't speak for most Catholics on the issue of contraception. And Republicans, eager to gin up anything against Obama now that the economy is improving, are naturally cranking up the hyperbole about a supposed "war on religion," but they, too, seem blind to how most Catholic women conduct their private lives.

The nonpartisan Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive health in America, reported last year that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used some form of contraception. That figure is not a misprint, and church leaders never mention it. Not even Rick Santorum - who lectures us that sex is moral only in the making of babies - has bothered to dispute it.

Republicans may want to splash their faces with this cold water: In the newly released New York Times/CBS News poll, when Catholics were asked whether they "support or oppose a recent federal requirement that private health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control for their female patients," 67 percent voiced support and only 25 percent voiced opposition. They were in sync with swing-voting independents (64-26) and women in general (72-20). And when Catholics were asked, more specifically, whether such a requirement should apply to religiously affiliated hospitals and universities, 57 percent said yes and only 36 percent said no.

That sentiment should not be a surprise, given the realities of life that have been overlooked in the current uproar. The largest Catholic college in America, DePaul University, routinely offers birth control coverage among its employee benefits. So does Marquette University, in accordance with Wisconsin law. Indeed, 28 states already require that insurance companies cover birth control for all employers; some of those states don't exempt any religious employers, not even churches.

So what Obama is doing, in accordance with the federal health-overhaul law, is nothing new. And when he tweaked his requirement Feb. 10 - Catholic institutions don't have to pay for the coverage; the cost will be borne by the insurance companies - he won support from the Catholic Health Association (600 hospitals and 1,400 health-care facilities), Catholic Charities, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, and the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.

Obama's policy is grounded in a very simple principle: If a faith-affiliated institution serves the general public, receives public money, and hires workers from outside the faith, then it should abide by the rules that apply to everybody else. In other words, women should have the same access to reproductive health services no matter where they work (churches aside). This is centrist politics, as confirmed by another new poll showing that 61 percent of Americans - and 67 percent of women - favor the employer requirement. The sponsor of that poll? Fox News.

So it's hardly a shock to discover, courtesy of Gallup, that Obama's support among Catholics has barely budged since he launched his purported "war on religion." It's important to note this, because Catholics are potentially pivotal in a number of swing states, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Nevada. They appear not to have been swayed by the rhetorical attempts to equate Obama with Hitler or Torquemada.

Blessedly, most Americans have been immune to the loose talk, simply because it's so preposterous. Last week, when Sean Hannity assembled a panel of conservative religious leaders to condemn Obama's birth control policy (naturally, the panel was 100 percent male), one guy quoted the famous Martin Niemoller poem that condemned the German clergy for staying mum during the Nazi era. That stuff may be good for the ratings, but it strains credulity to believe that swing voters will view Obama's defense of women as the first step toward fascist genocide.

So the political question that has dominated debate this month ("Is Obama in trouble with Catholics?") is actually the wrong question. We should be asking whether Republicans are in deep trouble with women, because the perplexing decision to stress religious rights at the expense of women's lives is potentially a huge political loser.

Lest the GOP need to be reminded, women vote in greater percentages than men - they made up 53 percent of the 2008 electorate - and they have favored the Democratic presidential candidate in five straight elections. Candidate Obama won 56 percent of women voters, and a new Pew Research Center poll says that incumbent Obama would win 59 percent in a match with Mitt Romney.

It would be safe to assume that Obama would fare even better against Santorum, who doesn't even believe that insurance companies should cover contraception. Indeed, the 1950s patriarchal mind-set in the Santorum camp is best illustrated by one of his key benefactors, 71-year-old billionaire Foster Friess, who said Thursday that back in his day, "gals" would simply take a Bayer aspirin and "put it between their knees" - which, as best as I can determine, is his way of saying that nice girls should practice birth control by keeping their legs closed.

Seriously, is this the kind of reactionary talk that most American women, Catholic or otherwise, want to hear in the 21st century? And the talk wasn't much different on Capitol Hill on Thursday, when a House Republican committee staged a hearing about how Obama's birth control policy is "trampling" religious rights. The first panel of witnesses featured conservative religious leaders, all men. By the end of the session, 11 people had testified, nine of them men. And the two women echoed the men. Nobody representing the female majority on birth control was permitted to testify.

The Republicans' bid to brand Obama as anti-Catholic is already a bust, yet they persist. They clearly believe it's a great way to galvanize the conservative base in the short run, but it's no way to win over women and independents in November. Obama should be grateful that they're smoothing his road to a second term.

Contact columnist Dick Polman at or @dickpolman1 on Twitter.

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