CONGRESS

Public Divided Over Birth-Control Coverage

President Barack Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb., 10, 2012, as the president announced the revamp of his contraception policy requiring religious institutions to fully pay for birth control. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)  
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
Feb. 27, 2012, 4:42 p.m.

On the dock­et of con­tra­cep­tion-re­lated is­sues di­vid­ing the parties, more Amer­ic­ans lean to­ward the po­s­i­tions held by Pres­id­ent Obama and most Demo­crats, though in sev­er­al cases only nar­rowly, ac­cord­ing to the latest United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll.

Prob­ing dis­putes over health in­sur­ance cov­er­age for con­tra­cep­tion and pren­at­al test­ing, fed­er­al fund­ing for Planned Par­ent­hood, and wheth­er em­ploy­ers must provide cov­er­age for pro­ced­ures that vi­ol­ate their mor­al or re­li­gious con­vic­tions, the sur­vey found that wo­men tilt more to­ward the Demo­crat­ic po­s­i­tion than men, with the gap usu­ally even more pro­nounced among whites.

The is­sue of con­tra­cep­tion has ig­nited a series of con­flicts in re­cent weeks. The con­front­a­tion es­cal­ated in Janu­ary when Obama an­nounced a policy that ini­tially would have re­quired re­li­giously af­fil­i­ated em­ploy­ers like Cath­ol­ic uni­versit­ies or hos­pit­als (though not churches them­selves) to fund birth con­trol at no cost if they provide health in­sur­ance to their work­ers. After a back­lash, Obama un­veiled a plan to re­quire the in­sur­ance com­pan­ies, rather than the re­li­giously af­fil­i­ated em­ploy­ers, to fund cov­er­age for con­tra­cep­tion at no ad­di­tion­al cost to the work­er.

Crit­ics de­ride that as a wispy dis­tinc­tion, but in the sur­vey 49 per­cent of adults polled said they sup­por­ted Obama’s plan, com­pared with 40 per­cent who op­posed it. This is­sue pro­voked sharp di­vi­sions by gender, race, and par­tis­an­ship. Men split evenly on the pro­pos­al, with 44 per­cent sup­port­ing and 44 per­cent op­pos­ing; wo­men, by con­trast, sup­por­ted Obama’s ap­proach by a sol­id 53 per­cent-to-36 per­cent ma­jor­ity. Like­wise, while whites split evenly on the idea, minor­it­ies backed it by about 2-to-1. And while three-fifths of Re­pub­lic­ans op­posed the com­prom­ise, nearly two-thirds of Demo­crats, along with just over half of in­de­pend­ents, backed it. (In this Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll, the find­ings by party are re­por­ted only among re­gistered voters, not all adults.)

But in a res­ult that un­der­scores how much the fram­ing of these is­sues can af­fect at­ti­tudes, re­spond­ents split much more closely on a Re­pub­lic­an le­gis­lat­ive pro­pos­al that would have the ef­fect of over­rid­ing Obama’s plan. The sur­vey noted that “Some mem­bers of Con­gress have pro­posed le­gis­la­tion that would al­low em­ploy­ers to deny cov­er­age for any med­ic­al ser­vice that vi­ol­ates the em­ploy­er’s mor­al con­vic­tions or re­li­gious be­liefs”; the Sen­ate is ex­pec­ted to vote this week on such an amend­ment from Sen. Roy Blunt, a Mis­souri Re­pub­lic­an.

On that ques­tion, 44 per­cent said they op­posed cre­at­ing such an ex­emp­tion for em­ploy­ers, while 40 per­cent sup­por­ted the idea. The idea was op­posed by men and wo­men as well as whites and non­whites, though only by very nar­row plur­al­it­ies. Even the par­tis­an splits were muted: Re­pub­lic­ans favored it only nar­rowly, in­de­pend­ents di­vided about evenly, and Demo­crats op­posed it, though not over­whelm­ingly.

The Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll, con­duc­ted by Prin­ceton Sur­vey Re­search As­so­ci­ates In­ter­na­tion­al, sur­veyed 1,005 adults Feb. 23-26; it has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3.5 per­cent­age points. The mar­gin of er­ror for re­gistered voters is plus or minus 4.3 per­cent­age points.

On two oth­er con­tra­cep­tion-re­lated ideas ad­vanced by Re­pub­lic­ans, opin­ion tilted much more to­ward res­ist­ance. One ques­tion told re­spond­ents that the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives last year “voted to elim­in­ate fund­ing for Planned Par­ent­hood, which provides a vari­ety of health care ser­vices to wo­men such as birth con­trol and breast can­cer screen­ings” and noted that “[s]ome Planned Par­ent­hood clin­ics per­form abor­tions, though not us­ing fed­er­al funds.” Giv­en that de­scrip­tion of the de­cision, fully 69 per­cent of those polled said they op­posed cut­ting off fund­ing; just 24 per­cent en­dorsed it. This idea faced broad op­pos­i­tion; 66 per­cent of men, 71 per­cent of wo­men, 65 per­cent of whites, 78 per­cent of non­whites, 70 per­cent of in­de­pend­ents, and 79 per­cent of adults un­der 30 all said they op­posed the fund­ing cutoff.

An­oth­er ques­tion tested at­ti­tudes to­ward GOP pres­id­en­tial con­tender Rick San­tor­um’s re­cent cri­ti­cism of the man­date in the fed­er­al health care law that em­ploy­ers provid­ing in­sur­ance must cov­er pren­at­al tests for preg­nant wo­men. Without men­tion­ing San­tor­um by name, the ques­tion noted, “Some op­pose the man­date be­cause pren­at­al test­ing may en­cour­age more abor­tions.” But even after hear­ing that ar­gu­ment, 60 per­cent of adults sur­veyed said they sup­por­ted the man­date, double the 30 per­cent who op­posed it. Once again, wo­men, minor­it­ies, young people, in­de­pend­ents, and Demo­crats were es­pe­cially sup­port­ive of the man­date; Re­pub­lic­ans op­posed it nar­rowly, 49 per­cent to 41 per­cent.

On each of these ques­tions, opin­ion among Cath­ol­ics closely tracked at­ti­tudes among oth­er Amer­ic­ans. 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. 

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