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The Birth Control Issue Is a Winning One for the Obama Administration

The administration’s health policy, in combination with decade-old EEOC rules, has created a media firestorm about religious freedom, with pundits calling it the end of Obama’s chances in 2012. In the real world, it will probably provide a modest electoral boost.

birth control pills

 

A handful of prominent Catholics, including Cardinal George, have come out strong against the Obama administration’s affirmation that religiously affiliated institutions, but not institutions of worship, have to do what they’ve been required to do since the Bush administration, only this time without co-pays—a slightly more illusory compromise than already exists.

(As usual, it takes a Democratic president to remind us of the specter of federal overreach.)

This has pundits declaiming that the “mighty” Catholic church will cost Obama the election thanks to the decision’s “cataclysmic” fallout. Among the crowd is John Kass:

Even a lowly alderman would have played it smarter. And Obama is much smarter than some machine alderman. The man spent years at the feet of the machine lords, petitioning for their favor. And they’re mostly Catholic. Didn’t Obama learn anything?

[snip]

It demonstrates to Americans that their government is not only willing but eager to dominate faith, by telling religions how to practice their beliefs. And if they refuse, then the faithful will feel the federal wrath.

So the president’s policy is not only mistaken and insensitive and wrong, it is the perfect expression of everything Americans fear about the ever-increasing federal leviathan.

I think maybe what he learned, once he got out of Chicago—if he didn’t know it already—was that Catholics aren’t an ideologically homogenous voting bloc. Most of them are already using contraceptives, something that’s been the case for almost 40 years now. And the polling bears that out:

A majority of Catholics (52%) say that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should have to provide coverage that includes contraception.

Among Catholic voters, however, only 45% support this requirement, while 52% oppose it.

Only about 4-in-10 (41%) white Catholics support this requirement, compared to 58% who oppose it.

Among other religious groups, 59% of the unaffiliated say that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should have to provide coverage that includes contraception, compared to less than one-third (31%) of white evangelical Protestants. White mainline Protestants are about evenly divided (45% say that hospitals and colleges should provide coverage, 48% say they should not).

Nearly 6-in-10 (58%) Millennials say that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should have to provide health care plans that include contraception coverage, compared to only one-third (33%) of seniors.

Women are also significantly more likely than men to say that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should provide this coverage (54% to 43% respectively).

So if the Obama adminstration sticks to its guns, it risks alienating a statistically significant majority of Catholic voters, but not a large one. The polling suggests that this would tend to be voters who are older, white, and male, not to mention evangelical Protestants at a rate much greater than Catholics. Basically, the demographic who Obama is least likely to appeal to anyway. (And the demographic that seems to be the one leading the media fretting.) If it doesn’t, it risks alienating its core constituencies. This hasn’t really been reflected in the media freakout, which doesn’t represent those demographics as well.

As of 2008, Democrats held an electoral advantage among Catholics. But the differences among Catholics when it comes to their relationship to Papal teachings and ideological lean are notable (PDF):

Catholic church teachings poll

Either way Catholics are more likely to be Democrats, but Catholics that are more likely to hew to the teachings of the Church’s hierarchy are more likely than others to be Republicans. And Catholics that strictly follow the Church’s teachings as determined by its hierarchy are in decline:

Even as they cheered John Paul II, [Gen X/post-Vatican II Catholics] tended to ignore his pleas for sexual abstinence, natural family planning, or going to Mass and confession on a regular basis, as evidenced by their responses to our surveys.

[snip]

Our 2005 survey brought evidence of the arrival of a new generation, the millennials, the first generation to come of age in the 21st century. Born between 1979 and 1987, they were only 9 percent of the Catholic population in 2005 (by 2011 they now include those born 1987-93, making up 23 percent of the Catholic population). They seemed to identify with John Paul’s concerns for the poor, the environment and the common good. At the same time, they continued to decide for themselves the morality of homosexuality, and sexual behavior in general.

It’s curious: the Catholic Church in America is getting, well, kinda Protestant in the classic sense. Meanwhile, evangelical Protestants have increasing common cause with the Vatican. Maybe they should consider a trade, with a mainline sect to be named later.

Joe Biden, Leon Panetta, and Bill Daley, older white male Catholics, warned Obama about the “religious freedom” angle. On the other hand, as ABC reported, a push within the party came from the other direction—led by women, some of them Catholic:

But Biden and Daley faced a strong group making the case for the rule within the administration – including Catholics such as senior adviser David Plouffe and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, senior White House advisers Valerie Jarrett and Pete Rouse, and then-domestic policy council director Melody Barnes. Others outside the White House also pushed hard for the rule, including former White House communications director Anita Dunn, Senators Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Planned Parenthood Federation of America president Cecile Richards. (Some of the details of this internal division were first reported yesterday by Bloomberg’s Mike Dorning and Margaret Talev.)

That’s why Sarah Kliff sees a winning issue in the election-losing cataclysm:

Numerous pundits have predicted that the requirement —and its narrow exemption for churches — will be a political liability for Obama. But where Shields sees “cataclysmic” fallout, the White House sees something quite different: a chance to widen the reproductive health debate beyond abortion to issues like contraceptives, winning over key demographics of independent voters in the process.

[snip]

When the reproductive health debate moves away from abortion, it becomes easier to message and connect with voters. Unlike abortion rights, an issue that tends to split voters, most polls on contraceptives and birth control tend to find Americans solidly in support.

Maybe that’s because it’s effective public policy:

According to the latest Vital Signs report, in 2009, the national teenage birth rate was 39.1 births per 1000 girls — a 37% decrease from 61.8 births per 1000 girls in 1991, and the lowest rate ever recorded, the CDC says. Birth rates for black and Hispanic teenage girls were 59.0 and 70.1 births per 1000 girls, respectively, compared with 25.6 for white teenagers.

And the increasingly widespread use of contraceptives hasn’t led to an increase in teenage sexual activity. Quite the opposite:

From 1991 to 2009, the percentage of high school students who said they ever had sexual intercourse fell from 54% to 46%. The percentage of students who said they had sexual intercourse in the past 3 months without using any method of contraception fell from 16% to 12%.

Fewer teens having sex and more teens using condoms has led to a similar decrease in the teen abortion rate:

The teen abortion rate in 2008 dropped to the lowest rate seen since 1972 at 17.8 per 1,000 teen girls and women, the analysis found, and was down 59 percent from 1988 when the abortion rate peaked at 43.5 per 1,000 teen women.

Kass writes:

Despite the president’s proclamation of a few years ago that America is not a Christian nation, even Saul Alinsky would agree that this entire enterprise was founded on Judeo-Christian principles.

And one central principle is that human beings are imperfect sinners (amazingly, even federal bureaucrats are imperfect), which means that the humans among us are in violation most of the time.

Unsurprisingly, public policy that actually recognizes the eternal imperfectability of people tends to poll pretty well among them.

 

Photograph: M.Markus (CC by 2.0)

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