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The Globe and Mail

Obama's push for contraception coverage ignites Republican furor

Barack Obama gestures at the White House Thursday. Mr. Obama's move to force Catholic universities and hospitals to include free contraception coverage in their employee health-care plans is under attack.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/Reuters

When it comes to contraception, you cannot tell an average American Catholic from a non-Catholic. Both use it in equal proportion, in spite of the church's edict against it.

So, in a calmer country, Barack Obama's move to force Catholic universities and hospitals to include free contraception coverage in their employee health-care plans might have been interpreted as a simple recognition of how most Americans live.

Yet, in the United States, sex, politics and religion are explosive enough on their own that the President must have known the mischief he would sow by raising an issue that amalgamates all three. And sure enough, he has set off a new battle in the culture wars.

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Republicans have labelled the administration's move an all-out assault on religious protections included in the Constitution. For them, it bespeaks growing government intrusiveness under a President who always errs on the side of the state.

Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner called the new rule "an unambiguous attack on religious freedom in our country" and vowed to table legislation to block its implementation. Florida Senator Marco Rubio reprimanded the President in Spanish. Republicans feel they have found an issue that resonates with Hispanic voters.

Candidates for the Republican presidential nomination are also getting mileage out of the "contraception decree." Rick Santorum's surprising surge in this week's Minnesota and Colorado caucuses partly reflected his move to mobilize GOP voters against it.

The President and his advisers intensely debated the risks and rewards of mandating free contraception among the preventive care coverage required under the new health-care law. While the Catholics around him, including Vice-President Joe Biden, warned against the move, Mr. Obama concluded the GOP would alienate centrist voters and women by opposing a measure most Americans support.

"Their calculation was that, if you're religiously conservative enough to see this as an assault on religious liberty, you probably weren't going to vote for Obama anyway," said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. "And for Republicans, another culture war is a poor substitute for running an election on the economy."

It is too early to know whether the White House made the right assumptions. But it is safe to say it did not bank on the vehemence with which religious authorities have denounced the President. Nor did it expect so much blowback from its own side.

Two prominent Democratic senators facing re-election this year – Pennsylvania's Bob Casey and West Virginia's Joe Manchin – have joined Republicans on the issue. So has Tim Kaine, the former Virginia governor who is running for the Senate this fall. Other Democratic senators facing voters in November have provided a testy "no comment."

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Under the so-called conscience clause, Catholic parishes will be exempt from covering birth control in employee health plans. But the White House has insisted that larger Catholic employers must comply with the new requirement by mid-2013, though it has vowed to work with them to "allay some of their concerns."

"You are going to have folks of all faiths who work for those large institutions," said White House press secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday. "Those women ought to be able to have access to the same contraceptive services that other women will have access to."

Catholic-run institutions remain linchpins in American health care and education. The more than 600 Catholic hospitals in the United States employ about 650,000 workers and provide care for one in six U.S. patients.

There are 244 Catholic postsecondary institutions, including Georgetown University, Notre Dame and Boston College. While they would be required to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees, it remains unclear whether they would also have to do so for their 720,000 students. Most campus clinics currently do not provide free birth control.

It would be naive to suggest the White House did not envision a political payback in making a decision that delighted Mr. Obama's liberal base, which will be critical in providing the energy and volunteers the President needs to win re-election this fall.

The decision, however, was also based on research showing that half of all U.S. pregnancies are unintended and that four in 10 of those pregnancies end in abortion. The data also showed that cost is a major reason many American women do not use birth control.

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Still, Republicans – typically proponents of putting more God in government – may have a stronger argument by standing up for the separation of church and state.

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