Even as angry Catholic leaders vow to fight a new federal requirement that most employers include contraceptives in their health insurance coverage, the Obama administration believes any political damage will be limited because it's on the side of women's rights.
Democratic strategists think voters who oppose President Obama because of the birth-control rule wouldn't have voted for him anyway. The strategists think most Catholic women — like most other American women — believe that birth control should be affordable and available.
The Susan G. Komen Foundation can attest to the volatility of family-planning politics. After saying it would cut off most funding to Planned Parenthood, Komen reversed itself last week in the face of public outcry.
"I think we saw with Komen that this is a country where voters, and particularly women voters, support affordable access to birth control, and that is true among Catholic women as well as women who are not Catholic," said Geoff Garin, a pollster for Democrats and Planned Parenthood.
Democratic strategists point to statistics showing widespread approval of birth control among Catholic voters, suggesting a gulf between clergy and parishioners. Catholic doctrine opposes birth control, but surveys show many Catholics use contraceptives.
The new rule stems from the 2010 healthcare law, which requires employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives to patients who want them. Churches and other houses of worship are exempt, but Catholic hospitals and universities are not. Bishops call the rule an affront to religious freedom.
The rule doesn't force doctors who object to contraception to prescribe it.
As the Komen Foundation discovered last week, public opinion can be hard to predict. After the breast cancer charity decided to stop funding about $650,000 in breast-health services at 16 Planned Parenthood affiliates, a public uproar ensued, and Komen reversed itself within days.
The controversy underscored broad support for access to birth control, prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases and cancer screenings for women, which altogether totaled 86% of Planned Parenthood's services in 2010, according to the group's website. Abortion accounted for 3%.
Still, angering Catholic voters — or doing anything that appears to restrict religious freedom — in swing states could come back to bite Obama. At least one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin III, a moderate and a Catholic in a tough reelection fight in West Virginia, came out against the administration's plan.
"This is America. Under our Constitution, religious organizations have the freedom to follow their beliefs, and government should honor that," Manchin said in a statement. "The Obama administration's position on this mandate is wrong and just doesn't make any sense to me. I'm talking to my Democratic and Republican colleagues about any ways we can fight this misguided decision."
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), a Catholic, has urged the administration to reconsider, saying the regulation violates the Constitution. Some bishops and priests have urged parishioners to pressure lawmakers.
Religious groups see the fight as about more than birth control. Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Assn. of the United States, argued that the rule potentially establishes a new test for what is and isn't a religious institution — one separate from the Internal Revenue Service definition and one that could have implications for other policies, on issues such as covering abortion.
"We have a long history in this country of ensuring that religious groups' issues are respected," Keehan said. "It's always a challenge in a pluralistic society to be sure that that's done in the appropriate way. But all of a sudden we no longer qualify, and that was a jolt."
Administration officials say that the exemptions mean religious organizations don't have to do anything that violates their beliefs, and that the law's intent is to protect the rights of employees who work for Catholic-owned institutions, many of whom are not Catholic.
Though Obama won the overall Catholic vote in 2008 by 9 percentage points, he lost among those voters who attend church weekly by 8 percentage points. Sen. John McCain won white Catholics by 5 percentage points.
Aligning himself with the interests of women is crucial if Obama is to win a second term. He garnered 53% of women voters in 2008, besting McCain by 13 percentage points. In 2010, when Republicans took control of the House, that edge evaporated and women were essentially evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Recent polling shows the gender gap in Democrats' favor has reemerged.
Among voters in the Republican primary, where opposition to abortion motivates a key slice of the electorate, front-runner Mitt Romney is voicing his objections to the rule on grounds that it violates religious liberty. Romney is committed to repealing the whole Obama healthcare law, and the birth control rule along with it, said Amanda Henneberg, a campaign spokeswoman.
"This is a direct attack on religious liberty and will not stand in a Romney presidency," she said.
Garin said Romney's position was unlikely to hurt Obama but risks placing the former Massachusetts governor at odds with the majority of women voters.
"It is reasonable to think that the Catholics who are opposed to birth control are unlikely to be Obama supporters for a whole host of other reasons," Garin said. "But for the significant majority of the electorate, being identified with increasing access to affordable birth control is a clear-cut positive."
The administration pledges to stand behind its decision, with the White House seeing a different moral issue at stake: access to preventive healthcare.