The Election Consequences of the Contraception Controversy

The furor over Obama's birth control coverage requirement may galvanize the right and divide Democrats

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Republican leaders strongly oppose President Obama's new contraception decision, but they also consider it a rallying point for conservatives just when the GOP needs a lift.

The furor focuses on the Obama administration's ruling that would require employers, including institutions with religious affiliations, to have health plans that provide contraceptives, such as the morning-after pill. Churches would be exempt, but some of those religious institutions, such as Catholic hospitals and colleges, follow a religious doctrine that using such birth-control methods is a sin.

Defenders of the policy say it would enhance women's health and protect women's reproductive rights. But the ruling has caused conservatives and some moderate Democrats to unify in strong opposition to the rule as a government intrusion on freedom of religion.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

This comes at a time when many Republicans are disappointed with their field of presidential candidates and more than a bit worried about their prospects for defeating Obama this fall. A big concern is that the party is badly split among the four candidates in the race—Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. Just as important,up to now no issue has galvanized conservatives or greatly inspired them over the many months of campaigning.

The ruling also comes at a time when other social issues are moving to the forefront. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, for example, has struck down California's Proposition 8, which would have overturned a law allowing same-sex marriage.

[Robert Schlesinger: New Culture War Will Help Santorum and Obama]

The contraception issue has been a hot topic at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington this week as activists and leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner, brand the policy as an attack on freedom of religion.

And many Democrats fret that the policy is a mistake. Former Rep. Artur Davis, an Alabama Democrat and an Obama supporter in 2008, wrote in Politico, "As unwise as the administration's policy is, it is even worse politics. In one swoop, they have handed Republicans grounds to galvanize evangelicals and more conservative Catholics, and they have badly discomfited Catholic candidates like Tim Kaine [a Democrat running for the Senate in Virginia] and Bob Casey [a Democrat seeking re-election to the Senate in Pennsylvania]."

  • See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.
  • Debate Club: Should Catholic and Other Religious Institutions Have to Cover Birth Control?
  • Ken Walsh's Washington: The Return of the Culture Wars