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Conscience Magazine

A Half Century of Defiance

By John Russonello April 29, 2018

It has been 50 years since Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical “Humanae Vitae: On Regulation of Birth,” which reaffirmed the Catholic church’s ban on artificial birth control. At the time of the Pope’s pronouncement, a majority of American Catholics opposed the ban. A half century later, while the Vatican’s position remains unchanged, opposition to the ban among American Catholic s has steadily increased—underscoring an ever widening gulf between the church hierarchy and its faithful. A new poll of American Catholics con­ducted in February by BRS and YouGov reports that 83 percent, or more than 8 in 10 Catholics in the United States, disagree or are ambivalent about the Vatican’s ban on birth control such as contraceptive pills and condoms. Only 17 percent agree out­right with the ban. The survey of 1,000 Catholics across the country also showed that majorities of Catholic men and women across every age group disagree with the ban. However, among those who outright disagree with the ban, a larger share of women than men disagree (71 percent of Catholic women versus 63 per­cent of Catholic men).

These findings are consistent with decades of polling on American views on birth control. Strong support for birth control has been a long-held posi­tion by the American public, including Catholics. In 1937, the Gallup poll found that 73 percent of Americans thought that government health clinics should be providing birth control to married people who want it. More than four decades later in 1983, when some states were making it illegal to provide birth control information, Gallup reported that 90 percent of the count r y believed that birth control information should be available to anyone who wanted it.

Catholic opposition to the Vatican’s position on artificial birth control was reported as far back as 1965, when the Harris poll found that 52 percent of Catholics in the United States thought the Catholic church should allow Cath­olics to use birth control devices, 15 percent said the church should continue the ban, and 33 percent were unsure. Since then, Cath­olic opposition to the ban has become more wide­spread and vehement, with our latest poll showing that 67 percent of US Catholics disagree with the birth control and only 16 percent are unsure.

Our new survey also indicates that most Catholics in America are not paying much attention to the Vatican’s position on birth control. 84 percent of Catholics we surveyed think it is common for Catholics to use birth control such as contraceptive pills and condoms. Fewer than one in three (29 percent) American Catholics had actually ever heard of the “Humanae Vitae” encyclical and fewer than one in seven (14 percent) knew that it was about birth control.

These results, as well as findings from other survey questions, show that there is not only broad support among Amer­ican Catholics for many birth control methods, but that the majority want these methods to be widely available to people. Fifty-two percent of Catholics in our new poll believe that Catholic hos­pitals that take government funds should be required to offer birth control such as contraceptive pill and condoms to patients. These findings are in keeping with a BRS poll of Catholic voters in 2016, which reported that 79 percent of Cath­olics who were planning to vote in the presidential election wanted to require health insurance companies to offer health plans that include birth control. Our 2014 survey of U.S. Catholic voters found that 71 percent supported ensuring that all women should have the same access to insurance coverage for birth control, regardless of where they work. In 2016, 71 percent of Catholics told us it was morally wrong to deny birth control to women who live in areas where the risk of Zika infection is high.

The Vatican’s ban on the use of con­traceptives also attracts strong opposi­tion from large majorities of American Catholics who are concerned about the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus. In our most recent survey, 71 percent of Catholics disagree with the ban’s prohibition on the use of condoms for any reason, including preventing HIV/AIDS; and 63 percent think that Catholic hospitals and clinics that take government funds should be required to include condoms as part of HIV/AIDS prevention.

The Vatican’s ban on birth control smacks up sharply against a core Amer­ican value of personal freedom, and as our questions on access indicate, it goes against Catholic Americans’ overriding values of equality and social justice. It also establishes a gulf between the values of the Vatican and those of the Catholic flock in America. It is a gulf that is wid­ening with time.

N=1,000 Catholics in the U.S, conducted on-line by YouGov February 13-18, 2018; margin of error +/- 3.6

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John Russonello

is a partner in the independent public opinion research and communications firm Belden Russonello Strategists in Washington, DC, and has been conducting research and writing about public opinion for the past 30 years.