In the News 2012

Contraception sparks political controversy


For many Americans, birth-control pills are about as controversial as taking a daily vitamin. No big deal.

And yet, contraception has emerged as a dominant social issue this election year.

Observers and advocates on both sides of the issue say there’s a perfect storm of political manipulation, anti-government sentiment and polarizing debate about the separation of church and state.

“I don’t think it’s really about contraception because if it was really about contraception, it would be over,” said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.

The drama started this way: The Obama administration infuriated Catholic bishops and other religious conservatives when it refused to exempt religious employers from a federal mandate that all health-insurance plans offer free birth control.

The president offered a compromise that passed the cost of contraception coverage from the religious institution to the insurer, but it didn’t satisfy his opponents.

The Catholic Church and others see the issue as one of religious freedom. Their opponents say it’s about women’s health.

“It’s become a kind of political football,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “This issue is not about contraception, but it’s an easy way to polarize people.”

The bishops are trying to protect their own rights, not tell others what to do, but their opponents are demonizing them, Walsh said.

Jon O’Brien, president of the advocacy group Catholics for Choice, said the bishops are the ones using dishonest rhetoric.

“This religious-freedom argument the bishops are using is totally bogus,” he said. “They knew 2012 was an election year. What better time to take your shopping list (of demands) to the body politic?”

The cause of “religious freedom” has caught on with the Republican presidential candidates because they “need something to beat President Obama with,” he said.

Conservatives on the far right are angry with the president and with government in general, and to them, the mandate is evidence that Obama wants to infringe on their rights, said Linda Gordon, a professor of history at New York University and author of TheMoral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America.

Cohabitation and bearing children outside of marriage are normal occurrences in America today, and that frightens some people, she said, adding, “There is very much (a) backlash to these practices and a lot of anxiety about that.”

Still, Gordon is somewhat mystified by the political focus on contraception. Her students show her how ubiquitous it has become.

“None of them can imagine living their lives without contraception. It’s like hamburgers. They don’t remember a time it wasn’t there.”

Indeed, polls show that most American women, Catholics included, have used artificial birth control.

But Americans are divided on the federal mandate that religious employers provide coverage for it, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The research group polled Americans this month about the issue. Of those who had heard about it, 48 percent said religious institutions should get an exemption and 44 percent said they shouldn’t.

Among Catholics, 55 percent favored an exemption and 39 percent did not. The group that felt most strongly was white evangelicals, with 68 percent of those familiar with the controversy supporting an exemption. That’s interesting because Protestant Christianity, in general, has no prohibition against birth control.

Some conservatives fear a “slippery-slope” effect, said Green, who is also a senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. They worry that Catholics having to pay for contraception could lead to religious employers having to pay for elective abortions or other procedures they find problematic.

But though the contraceptive issue could linger through the general election — and have an impact in a close race — the main focus will still be the economy, not who pays for birth control, Green said.

This article was originally published in the Columbus Dispatch.

Catholics for Choice