Catholics Split Over Obama Contraceptive Order

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The conflict between the Catholic Bishops and the White House over contraceptive coverage has American Catholics choosing sides.

Catholics narrowly support the White House position in polls. There are potential political consequences: In presidential elections, Catholics are swing voters. They supported Al Gore in 2000, President George W. Bush in '04 and President Obama in '08.

The GOP presidential hopefuls are certainly using this issue. Framing it as a question of religious freedom is a guaranteed way to fire up the conservative base.

"If you believe in the right to worship God without government interfering, come join us," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said.

Mitt Romney vowed: "This kind of assault on religion will end if I'm president of the United States." And Rick Santorum added: "What they've done is an egregious affront to religious liberty."

Mandate 'Beyond Politics'

In the audience at that Santorum event in Rochester, Minn., was Charles Slater, a family physician who agrees with the candidate.

"I think a lot of people don't understand or see that that's a principle that people of Catholic faith are being asked to violate," he said. "So the mandate from the government goes beyond politics. It goes down to the very center of theology, Catholic theology, or teaching about the human person."

But not all Catholics share that view when it comes to birth control. In fact, 98 percent of Catholic women use birth control at some point in their lifetimes. A new survey by Public Policy Polling shows that a narrow majority of Catholic voters think women employed by Catholic hospitals and universities should have access to contraceptive coverage through their health plans.

Among them is Pat Schaffer in Minneapolis, who says Catholic institutions are not being asked to supply birth control themselves, only to include such coverage in health care plans.

"If the employee agrees with them, then they won't use the contraception," she says. "And if the employees in conscience disagree with the bishops, then it's up to the employees what to do, and I don't see how the bishops have the right to force the employee to take a particular stand any more than they have the right to control how an employee uses their wages."

Seeking Exceptions

Across the river in St. Paul, students at University of St. Thomas have been talking about this issue in classrooms and over lunch at the student services building.

"I believe it's the Amish [who] have the option to opt out of the draft, and the Quakers have the option, too," said Katie Moosbrugger, a Catholic studies, German and education major. "There are lots of exceptions for religious institutions ... and Catholics, we don't hold that contraception is something to be supported."

Hanna Heinicke, also a student at St. Thomas, acknowledges that it's complicated but says she has to "err on the side of the bishops."

"I think it's not fair that religious organizations would have to provide services that they feel are morally wrong," she says.

But Heinicke supports the overall health care bill signed by Obama in 2010.

"I'm actually a huge fan of it," she says. "I think everyone should have the right to have health care. I think it's a human right."

In Washington on Thursday, a group of women backing the White House rule on the issue held an event at the National Press Club. Their concern, amid all of the debate, is that the president stick to his guns.

"I have faith in him that he will do the right thing. I will be praying that he does the right thing," said Callie Otto, a student at Catholic University of America. "But I will also be praying that the bishops can realize that they're wrong and they back down so he doesn't have so much pressure."

Catholics on each side of this are offering prayers. For its part, the Obama administration is looking for an answer that allows it to defend its decision and also somehow address the concerns of its opponents.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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