A new federal mandate on birth control and the growing outcry against it might actually help President Barack Obama in the upcoming election.
Catholic leaders led by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are urging their congregations to lobby Congress against the policy, which is part of the health care overhaul that the bishops also opposed.
The mandate announced last month would require religiously affiliated nonprofits, including Catholic universities and hospitals, to cover birth control in employee health care plans. Churches are exempt. Religious groups including the National Association of Evangelicals have rallied around the bishops.
“This is an attack on religious liberty,” Deirdre McQuade, spokeswoman for the bishops, said in an interview.
The Catholic Health Association, which supported Obama during the health care fight, released a statement saying its members “were profoundly disappointed.”
The fierce opposition is galvanizing another base to the policy’s defense, a bloc that could provide Obama with more votes and dollars for his re-election: women’s rights groups and their backers.
In recent days, organizations including Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America and EMILY’s List have rallied around the administration to counter the campaign led by the bishops.
“We need to stand with the White House and our allies,” NARAL President Nancy Keenan said. On Friday, her group sent more than 25,000 messages to the House defending the birth control policy.
The National Organization for Women, despite criticizing the policy for exempting churches, has also stepped up to defend Obama against the attacks. In December, the group blasted the White House for preventing emergency contraceptives from being sold over the counter.
“President Obama is a centrist. I want a president who is a flaming, feminist liberal like me, but he is a steppingstone,” NOW President Terry O’Neill said.
Such support could help the president’s re-election campaign. An incident involving Planned Parenthood last week demonstrated the political influence and money of this voting bloc.
Last week, the breast cancer awareness group Susan G. Komen for the Cure momentarily pulled funding from Planned Parenthood, which, in addition to abortions, provides cancer screenings to low-income women. Komen quickly reversed course after a barrage of criticism from Members of Congress, funders and the general public — but not before Planned Parenthood received more than $650,000 in donations from its defenders.
By taking a firm stance on birth control, Obama could galvanize liberal voters who have criticized him for being too moderate. On Monday, senior administration officials told reporters that access to free contraceptives is not negotiable.
The policy risks alienating some voters, but Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said they were unlikely to support Obama in the first place.
“The voters who oppose this policy tend to be partisan Republicans,” Garin said. At the same time, Garin noted that the policy could create goodwill among younger women, who are most likely to vote based on birth control and abortion issues.
Birth control proponents say studies show Catholic women use contraceptives at the same rate as the general female population. The Guttmacher Institute estimated that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used contraception. A 2010 Planned Parenthood survey found that 77 percent of Catholic women said they support covering birth control with no co-pay.
Birth control is less contentious than abortion, but even abortion is becoming less of a galvanizing electoral issue, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Its research on the 2008 elections found that abortion came second to last on a long list of issues concerning voters. Only 13 percent of voters believed abortion should never be permitted, and they are the voters that Obama is unlikely to reach regardless of his policy on birth control access.
Catholic voters are fairly evenly split between the parties. Obama received a 54 percent majority of the Catholic vote four years ago while supporting abortion rights.
Opponents of the policy, including Republican presidential candidates, are making this a battle over religious freedom. Erica Payne of the liberal Agenda Project said the administration risks losing control of the narrative, but she warned that a change in course could hurt Obama’s re-election.
“If the administration walks back on this, they are going to have a problem with their women voters in the fall,” Payne said.
Matt Smith, president of Catholic Advocate, said his group of 100,000 active members is pressuring Congress to act against the policy.
“The larger issue is the federal government coming in and telling institutions to violate their religious beliefs,” Smith said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which works on religious freedom issues, dismissed that argument.
“Religious freedom doesn’t give one group the right to impose their beliefs on another,” said Sarah Lipton-Lubet, a lawyer who works on ACLU’s policy agenda.
Some conservative lawmakers hope to override the administration. GOP Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) have introduced bills and have dozens of fellow Republicans as co-sponsors. Last week, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin became the first Democrat to publicly criticize the administration’s policy.
Even if the bills don’t pass, Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said pressure from Congress and the public may be enough to push the administration into changing the policy.
Sen. Mike Johanns questioned the political implication of the mandate. The Nebraska Republican said Obama could damage his relations with Catholic voters in independent states.
“He’s picked this fight on conscience issues,” Johanns said.
“I am guessing that scores well with a base like he has, kind of re-establishes his credentials. … The downside of that is that he has really fired up the other side, too.”
Steven Dennis T. and Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.