As birth control flap goes on, who benefits most? Santorum? Obama?

The two sides are hardening their positions on contraception. The divide between many Catholics and bishops remains. And it’s raising questions over who benefits in the presidential election.

Evan Vucci/AP
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Friday. 'It's not about contraception,' he said. 'It's about freedom of religion, it's about government control of your lives and it's got to stop.'

The controversy over President Obama’s order on contraception and religious institutions is not going away as a political issue.

The two sides seem to be hardening their positions. The divide between many American Roman Catholics and their bishops remains. And it’s raising questions over who benefits most in the run-up to the presidential election.

Is it Rick Santorum, who seems to edge out his main GOP rivals on the issue – thrice-married Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, whose record on the issue as governor of Massachusetts has opened him to criticism from hard-line social conservatives?

"It's not about contraception," Mr. Santorum said at the Conservative Political Action Conference Friday. "It's about economic liberty, it's about freedom of speech, it's about freedom of religion, it's about government control of your lives and it's got to stop."

Or is it President Obama who’s benefiting most?

In this coming week’s issue of Newsweek, Andrew Sullivan (who describes himself as conservative and a Catholic) suggests that “this could be the moment when the culture-war tide finally turns and the social wedge issues long deployed so effectively by the Republican right begin to come back and bite them.”

“The more Machiavellian observer might even suspect this is actually an improved bait and switch by Obama to more firmly identify the religious right with opposition to contraception, its weakest issue by far, and to shore up support among independent women and his more liberal base,” he writes. “I’ve found by observing this president closely for years that what often seem like short-term tactical blunders turn out in the long run to be strategically shrewd. And if this was a trap, the religious right walked right into it.”

No one can know for sure if that’s the case.

But a new poll out over the weekend finds “strong support from Catholics for the solution to the birth control policy the White House announced on Friday, indicating that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and Congressional Republicans who oppose the requirement for birth control coverage are significantly out of step with rank-and-file Catholic voters.”

The poll of American Catholics, conducted Friday night by the Public Policy Polling organization, finds that 57 percent of Catholic voters surveyed support Mr. Obama’s policy, including 59 percent of Catholic women. A majority also opposes congressional attempts to reverse the policy.

Meanwhile, lines between the White House and the Catholic church hierarchy appear to be hardening.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, initially called Obama’s latest move “a first step in the right direction.”

But in a statement Friday evening, the bishops said Obama's proposal "continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions, and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions."

"We will therefore continue – with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency – our efforts to correct this problem through the other two branches of government," the bishops said, meaning Congress and federal courts.

Three religious groups will continue to pursue their legal challenges to the government's regulation, despite Obama's announcement last week adjusting the policy in response to critics, Hannah Smith, a lawyer at the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the plaintiffs, told Reuters. The lawsuits, filed by two religious colleges and a Catholic television network, said the government violated their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religion. Two were filed last year and the third was filed last week.

Some have charged that Obama’s adjusted policy – which says that religious institutions like hospitals, universities, and charities don’t have to include free birth control in health insurance plans for female employees but that insurance companies will be required under the Affordable Care Act to provide contraception to all employees at such institutions free of charge – amounts to “an accounting gimmick.”

The cost will just be passed back to those institutions, they say. But others note that contraception in the end costs insurance companies far less than birth delivery and pediatric services that might be avoided with the use of birth control.

"If you were looking at an actuarial projection of the cost of a plan, it costs more to provide a plan without than it does with. This is one of those very rare cases where it actually does not cost the insurance company money to do it," White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew said on Fox News Sunday.

Mr. Lew reiterated the president’s "very deep belief that a woman has a right to all forms of preventive health care, including contraception,” and he said the administration has no intention of changing its policy despite the political firestorm it has caused.

"We have set out our policy," Lew said. "We are going to finalize it in the final rules, but I think what the president announced on Friday is a balanced approach that meets the concerns raised both in terms of access to health care and in terms of protecting religious liberties, and we think that's the right approach."

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