Political fallout from birth control fight: A glimmer of good news for Obama?

Under fire from Catholic bishops and others, the Obama administration had to backtrack on contraception and health insurance. But many Catholics differ with the church hierarchy over birth control.

By , Staff writer

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    President Barack Obama pauses while announcing the revamp of his contraception policy requiring religious institutions to fully pay for birth control, Friday, Feb. 10, 2012, in the White House press room.
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President Obama may have hoped to dispel the political firestorm raining down on him over contraception and religion with the new White House approach announced Friday. But that never was going to happen.

Anything that angers social and religious conservatives while annoying a significant portion of his own base does not soon fade, especially in a presidential re-election year.

Still, there may be some beneficial political fallout for Obama as Republican presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich try to outdo each other on this hot-button issue, which they short-hand as the incumbent president’s “war on religion,” leaving Mitt Romney to explain his moderate position on birth control (and even abortion) back when he was Massachusetts governor.

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Anything that keeps Republicans fighting, that prolongs the GOP’s nominating process, works to Obama’s benefit.

Then, there’s the divide between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and most Catholics on birth control, back in the spotlight as the result of the controversy, indicating that Obama may be able to keep a good portion of the 54 percent of Catholics whose vote he won in 2008. More on that in a minute.

But for now, as Jonathan Allen at Politico put it, “The battle over contraceptive coverage at religiously affiliated institutions has bound together Republicans of all stripes because it hits core GOP themes: religious liberty, government intrusion, and reproduction politics.”

“Perhaps more important politically,” Allen added, “it has given Republicans something to talk about other than the economy, just when Obama’s gotten a lift from modest gains.”

Under the proposed new rule that Obama announced Friday, religiously affiliated institutions (such as hospitals and universities) will not be required to include free birth control in health insurance plans for female employees.

Instead, insurance companies will be required under the Affordable Care Act to provide contraception to all employees at such institutions free of charge – which may be a distinction without a lot of difference, or as one critic put it “an accounting gimmick.”

Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, calls Obama’s latest move “a first step in the right direction.” Which implies that more steps will be demanded, as Archbishop Dolan puts it, in order to “to guarantee that Americans’ consciences and our religious freedom are not harmed by these regulations."

But Sister Carol Keehan, president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, which represents hundreds of church-run hospitals and other facilities, was much more effusive in her response.

“The Catholic Health Association is very pleased with the White House announcement that a resolution has been reached that protects the religious liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions,” Sister Keehan said in a statement. “We are pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished.”

That appreciation for and support of Obama by the Catholic Health Association was seen earlier and in more controversial fashion when the organization supported the President’s health care reform plan.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops was furious with Keehan, charging that she had “weakened the moral voice of the bishops in the US.”

That episode illustrated the divide between the church hierarchy and many Catholics over some important moral and therefore political questions – particularly when that hierarchy is all-male and the question involves women’s sexuality and reproductive health.

The Guttmacher Institute reported last April that 98 percent of Catholic women have used methods of contraception not approved by the church.

“Sixty-eight percent of Catholic women use highly effective methods of contraception: sterilization, the pill or another hormonal method, and the IUD,” Guttmacher reported. Only 2 percent of Catholic women rely wholly on natural family planning (the “rhythm method”) allowed under church doctrine.

Also regarding today’s controversy over contraception, health care insurance, and religious institutions, many (perhaps most) Catholics apparently do not go along with their bishops.

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) reported this week that 58 percent of Catholics believe that employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception and that a majority of all Catholics (52 percent) say that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should be required to provide coverage that includes contraception.

“Given how closely divided Catholic voters are … it seems unlikely that this issue will galvanize Catholics nationally and seriously undermine Obama’s electoral prospects with this important religious constituency,” said PRRI research director Daniel Cox.

We’ll all have to wait until November to know if that’s true.

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