In the midst of what has already been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad summer, the Obama administration last week appeared to stumble into the kind of culture war skirmish that nearly shut down the government earlier this year. The Department of Health and Human Services announced that under the new health care law, insurance companies will be required to cover birth control without the co-pays that most women currently fork over on a monthly basis. Any new health mandate would be sufficient to draw ire from Republicans committed to opposing the implementation of “ObamaCare.” But this one came with a religious exemption that was immediately blasted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as “so narrow as to exclude most Catholic social service agencies and health care providers.”
Even the Catholic Health Association, which broke with the bishops conference to support health reform last year and was a key Catholic ally of the White House, expressed its disappointment and opposition to the rule. And yet what was the response from congressional Republicans? Silence. So, what could possibly cause Republicans to clam up when handed an opportunity to bash Democrats for mandating birth control coverage?
Well, for starters, birth control itself is extremely popular. A Centers for Disease Control study of women’s sexual activity from 1991 to 2008 found that 99% of women who are sexually active have used birth control. While opposition to contraception remains a teaching in the Catholic Church, moral opposition among the public in general is so tiny that polling organizations long ago stopped asking questions about it.
Even mandating that insurance companies cover the cost of birth control doesn’t faze most Americans. An NPR/Thomson Reuters poll earlier this year found that 77% of Americans thought private insurers should pay all or some of the cost of oral contraceptives. The result was virtually unchanged when pollsters asked about people who get help from the government to buy private insurance–74% of respondents said those women should have their birth control covered. According to another survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, even 89% of Catholic women support expanding access to contraception for women who cannot afford it. To be clear, doing so would allow your tax dollars to cover the cost of birth control. And yet that is something Americans now seem to view as a right.
Another factor that could be driving Republicans to keep quiet about the new mandate is the fact that the religious exemption may turn out to be broader than expected. As currently drafted, the HHS rule includes a relatively narrow definition of religious employers that has been used by states that require contraception coverage but also provide a religious exemption. But HHS also took the unusual step of calling for public comment on other religious exemptions, suggesting that it is willing to consider broader definitions. The rule specifically cites the more expansive definition used by the IRS to define which religious organizations should receive tax-exempt status, a category that currently covers most Catholic hospitals.
Whatever the reason, reaction to the new mandate has been overwhelmingly positive. It stands in stark contrast to the battle over birth control funding that nearly scuttled budget negotiations in April. That debate, you may remember, revolved around the issue of federal funding for clinics that cover birth control and family planning–funding that excludes abortions–for low-income women, something 75% of Americans support according to the NPR/Thomson Reuters poll.
If there is virtually no difference in public support for the new birth control coverage mandate and support for federal funding of clinics that provide birth control, why has the former provoked little outcry while the latter almost resulted in a government shutdown? And why is there a roiling movement at the state level to defund family planning clinics, with five states so far this year eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood’s contraception services?
The answer is that Republicans have been able to conflate birth control with abortion when they focus on Planned Parenthood, which has the distinction of being the nation’s single largest abortion provider, even though abortions represent just a small percentage of Planned Parenthood’s services. So while the question of whether Americans want their tax dollars funding birth control polls well, in the political debate it becomes: “Do you want your tax dollars funding an abortion provider?” That sounds just enough like funding abortion itself to be effective. That’s why even though Planned Parenthood laws are being held up by courts almost as quickly as they’re passed in states, Republicans continue to view the issue as a political winner.
There’s a lesson here for Planned Parenthood advocates. In an effort to alter their public image as simply an abortion provider, Planned Parenthood has emphasized the other medical services they provide, such as manual exams to detect breast cancer, and argued that they are the main health provider for many of their clients. But the attempt to come off as just another health clinic is just a little too slippery. It’s unnecessary, too. The organization’s message can and should be much simpler: birth control, birth control, birth control. That’s a debate Republicans don’t want to have.
Amy Sullivan is contributing writer at TIME, and author of the book The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap (Scribner, 2008). Articles of Faith, her column on the intersection of religion and politics, appears on TIME.com every Friday.