Whenever abortion becomes a heated political issue, you can be sure that religion is involved. The reverse also is true. Such is the case with the 2012 election season.
Decisions the Obama administration has made regarding abortion have been targeted by Republican presidential candidates vying for the votes of social conservatives, including evangelical Christians. So too has the administration’s recent move on contraception, some kinds of which are considered by opponents to be a form of abortion.
Newt Gingrich accuses President Obama of waging a “war against religion” – specifically that it has “declared war” on the Roman Catholic Church – for (among other things) requiring Catholic hospitals and universities to provide contraception as part of employee health plans.
Employees at many of the church’s hospitals and universities are not Roman Catholic, and most Catholic women in the United States disagree with the church’s official opposition to the use of condoms and birth control pills. Nearly 70 percent of Catholic women use sterilization, the birth control pill, or an IUD, the Guttmacher Institute reported last year.
“No one is forcing Catholics to take contraceptives,” writes Keith Soko, associate professor of religious ethics and moral theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, in a CNN opinion column. “It is a question of access, and hence, of justice.” (Professor Soko describes himself as “a Catholic theologian and lifelong Catholic.”)
But Mitt Romney says the Obama administration’s decision regarding Catholic hospitals and universities and contraception amounts to ordering religious organizations to “violate their conscience.” Priests around the country have read bishops’ letters at mass urging parishioners to object to the administration’s action, some warning that universities and hospitals affiliated with the church might have to close.
But the GOP front-runner’s position on birth control and abortion are a problem for him too.
As CBS’s Political Hotsheet reported last week, in 1994 Romney said "abortion should be safe and legal in this country," and in 2002 he said "I will preserve and protect a woman's right to choose, and am devoted and dedicated to honoring my word in that regard."
Gingrich and Rick Santorum (both of whom are Roman Catholic) have gone after Romney on the issue. A Gingrich campaign spot claims that as governor of Massachusetts Romney “signed government-mandated health care with taxpayer funded abortions.”
The Boston Globe reported Friday that as governor, “Romney required all Massachusetts hospitals, including Catholic ones, to provide emergency contraception to rape victims, even though some Catholics view the morning-after pill as a form of abortion.”
“The initial injury to Catholic religious freedom came not from the Obama administration but from the Romney administration,’’ C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, told the Boston Globe. “President Obama’s plan certainly constitutes an assault on the constitutional rights of Catholics, but I’m not sure Governor Romney is in a position to assert that, given his own very mixed record on this.’’
The connection between forms of birth control and abortion was sharply seen in the controversy involving the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation and Planned Parenthood.
Earlier this week, the breast-cancer charity announced that it was ending grants to Planned Parenthood for breast-health services on grounds that Planned Parenthood is under investigation by a congressional subcommittee for improperly using federal money to fund abortions.
Planned Parenthood denies that taxpayer money has been used for abortions; overall, abortions account for only 3 percent of the organization’s activity.
The Komen Foundation took a lot of heat from critics who said its decision was politically-motivated. By the end of the week, Komen had reversed course and said it would continue funding breast cancer screening at Planned Parenthood.
Obama is taking heat too – from many Republicans and conservative commentators, as well as from the Catholic Church, for his move on birth control and religious institutions, even though most employees at many of the church’s hospitals and universities are not Roman Catholic.
Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan says flatly, “President Obama just may have lost the election” because of this issue.
“The church is split on many things,” Noonan writes. “But do Catholics in the pews want the government telling their church to contravene its beliefs? A president affronting the leadership of the church, and blithely threatening its great institutions? No, they don't want that. They will unite against that.”
She notes that Obama won 54 percent of the Catholic vote in 2008. “They helped him win. They won't this year. And guess where a lot of Catholics live? In the battleground states.”
Anthony Picarello, general counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Los Angeles Times his organization would "pursue every legal mandate available to them to bring an end to this mandate.”
”That means legislation, litigation and public advocacy,” he said. “All options are on the table.”