President Barack Obama’s deputies and his progressive allies are trying to convert the damaging controversy over federal regulation of religious groups into an advantageous fight against Catholic bishops over access to contraception.
The portrayal, if successful, could boost support among younger women, while reducing unexpected losses among religious voters in critical swing-states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“The idea that an employer — a Catholic bishop — can say you’re not going to get access to insurance coverage … that’s downright creepy,” said Jon O’Brien, president of an abortion-choice advocacy group, Catholics for Choice. “American women get really mad when people start messing with their contraception,” he told The Daily Caller.
“Let’s remember who this controversy is really about — the women of America,” said a Feb. 8 op-ed by three Democratic senators. “Too many women struggle to pay for birth control… Improving access to birth control is good health policy and good economic policy,” said the op-ed, by Sens. Barbara Boxer, Jeanne Shaheen and Patty Murray. “The millions of American women who choose to use contraception should not be forced to follow religious doctrine, whether Catholic or non-Catholic.”
The Democrats’ frequent references to bishops and contraception allows them to spur their anti-religious base while also offering a moderate message about health and contraception to the general public.
A comparable two-level communications strategy was used by President George W. Bush to show his support for religious causes. For example, he used biblical allusions and phrases to package moderate political messages and demonstrations of sympathy with evangelicals and other Christian groups. When Bush was in office, this practice was routinely described by reporters as a “dog whistle” to Christians.
“We stand with President Obama and Secretary Sebelius in their decision to reaffirm the importance of contraceptive services as essential preventive care for women,” said a Feb. 8 statement from a group of 23 smaller-scale progressive religious groups, including O’Brien’s Catholics for Choice. “We do not believe that specific religious doctrine belongs in health care reform… We invite other religious leaders to speak out with us for universal coverage of contraception,” the groups said.
The spin was aided Feb. 7 when two polls were released showing that Americans, including Catholics and political independents, support the inclusion of contraceptive coverage in employer-provided health insurance. The poll by Public Policy Polling, for example, showed that 56 percent of voters support employer-provided birth control benefits, and 37 percent oppose those benefits. Catholic wmen shared similar views, said the poll.
Neither poll, however, showed how the public views federal regulation of all religious groups’ ethical standards. (RELATED: Boehner accuses Obama of attacking religious freedom over contraceptives)
The focus on contraception may spur younger women to support Obama in November. That demographic strongly supports federal aid programs, and aided Obama in 2008. But Obama’s support among that group has declined since 2008, partly because of the stalled economy, high unemployment and growing student debt.
On Feb. 8 White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration would not retreat from what he said is its policy to provide all women with free contraceptive services. The decision exempt clerics and other employees within churches and other places of worship, but not employees at religious-run hospitals, schools, universities and charities, such as the Salvation Army.
“The discussion is how can we implement this policy try to allay some of the concerns that have been expressed [by religious groups, but] there is no change in ensuring that women have access to these important services,” Carney said.
The progressives’ spin about contraception is influencing media coverage, and sidelining the religious groups’ worries about the state’s effort to regulate religious practice.
For example, a Feb. 8 article in Politico reported the dispute as “an increasingly ugly election-year controversy over birth control coverage.” Similarly, most White House reporters attending the daily press briefings describe the issue as a controversy over contraception, not federal regulation of religion.