How Birth Control Became as Much a Partisan Issue as a Religious One

Recent polling offers some insights.

Supporters rally in front of the Supreme Court after the decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores June 30, 2014 in Washington, DC. (National Journal)

Obamacare's contraception mandate, which the Supreme Court pared back Monday in its Hobby Lobby ruling that says bosses can deny employees birth-control coverage if it violates their religious beliefs, has long been framed as a battle over religious freedom. Requiring contraceptive coverage is of particular relevance to Catholics, as so many of the institutions that have raised objections to the rule are affiliated with the Catholic Church. But recent polling suggests it's become as much a partisan issue as a religious one.

Polling published by Gallup in 2012 shows huge partisan gaps on birth-control coverage, with the overwhelming majority of Republicans (83 percent) sympathizing more with the views of religious leaders. The number of Democrats sympathizing with the Obama administration, at 76 percent, was nearly as high. Independents, tellingly, were evenly divided at 45 percent.

Of course, whether Americans identify as Dems or Republicans to begin with is correlated with how often people attend church, and Republicans on average are significantly more religious than Democrats. For example, a Values and Beliefs survey, found 42 percent of Republicans report attending church weekly, compared with just 29 percent of Democrats. So it's little wonder that partisan attitudes on contraception track levels of religiosity so closely.

The question of which came first, the partisanship or the religiosity, then becomes a chicken-and-egg one.

In a 2012 interview with America magazine, Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, the head of the domestic policy committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, worried aloud that the bishops' confrontational approach was being exploited by political groups "very far to the right" who are trying to use the conflict with the White House as an anti-Obama campaign. "I think there are different groups that are trying to co-opt this and make it into political issue, and that's why we need to have a deeper discussion as bishops," said Blaire, who opposes the contraception mandate for religious reasons.

Conservatives have used the issue as fodder in their unceasing attack on President Obama and his signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. Yet contraceptive coverage has enjoyed a substantial amount of support for some time. A Gallup Poll showed that 75 percent of Americans favored contraception use as early as the 1930s. That mood is not markedly different among Catholics. A full 82 percent of U.S. Catholics say birth control is morally acceptable, a number nearing the 89 percent of all Americans (and 90 percent of non-Catholics) who agree.

Those numbers are consistent with the findings from a recent United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll. As Ronald Brownstein reported in 2012, when asked about disputes over health insurance coverage for contraception and prenatal testing, among other related issues, opinions among Catholics closely tracked attitudes among other Americans. According to Brownstein's report on the findings:

Catholics backed the Obama compromise by 52 percent to 41 percent — actually a slightly wider margin for the president than the 48-percent-to-39-percent split among non-Catholics. Catholics split exactly evenly (43 percent to 43 percent) on the exemptions in Blunt's proposal. More than three-fifths of Catholics supported the prenatal-testing mandate and three-fourths of them opposed cutting off Planned Parenthood funding. White Catholics showed little difference from nonwhite Catholics on those questions.

The poll suggested that each side may motivate its base on these issues. Sixty percent of college-educated white women supported the Obama compromise. In sharp contrast, the plan faced plurality opposition from noncollege white men and women, and college-educated white men, all of whom are usually tougher audiences for Democrats. Likewise, two-thirds of whites under 34 supported the revised Obama plan — while nearly three-fifths of white seniors opposed it. Two key swing groups — white Catholics and white independents — tilted narrowly toward the Obama position.

Though the use of contraception is forbidden by Church doctrine, nine of 10 Catholics believe that Americans should make up their own minds on contraceptive issues rather than simply following the Church. When it comes to actually making up their minds on the Obamacare contraception mandate, partisanship seems to be as good an indication as religiosity.