Washington • Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is for access to contraceptives but against what he calls a crackdown on religious liberty.
The former Massachusetts governor has charted a careful course through a social conservative minefield as the issue of contraceptive health-care coverage has grabbed headlines in the Republican presidential campaign.
In many ways, it’s the same course pursued by Romney’s Mormon faith.
Unlike Catholics and some other religions, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not condemn most methods of birth control.
“Decisions about birth control and the consequences of those decisions,” the Utah-based faith says on its website, “rest solely with each married couple.”
That hands-off stand may explain why, while some faiths were launching into a vocal battle with the White House over the contraceptive insurance-coverage mandate, the LDS Church, which typically doesn’t shy away from religious-freedom issues, was silent.
Romney has been clear that he opposes the Obama administration’s initial effort to require free contraceptive coverage in all health-care policies, including those for companies and institutions affiliated with religions. But he has no qualms with using birth-control devices.
“I would totally and completely oppose any effort to ban contraception,” Romney said during a January debate in New Hampshire. “Contraception: It’s working just fine, just leave it alone.”
Obama later softened his proposal. Church-affiliated hospitals, schools or charities could refuse to cover contraception. If they did, insurance companies would have to provide the free service.
Romney stepped onto one of the political mines surrounding the issue when he answered a question on the campaign trail last week by saying he opposed a Republican amendment in the Senate that would have provided an exemption to health-care mandates for employers with conscience or moral objections.
“I’m not for the bill,” Romney told the Ohio News Network. “But, look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, a husband and wife, I’m not going there.”
The GOP front-runner quickly clarified the position.
“I really misunderstood the question,” Romney said. “Of course I support that amendment. I clearly want to have people have a religious exemption from Obamacare,” Romney told a Boston radio station after his first remarks went viral and drew attacks from rival Rick Santorum, who is Catholic. “I thought [the question was about] some Ohio legislation where employers were prevented from providing contraceptives,” Romney said.
The Senate ultimately rejected the so-called Blunt amendment — tacked onto a highway-funding bill — on a party-line vote. Three Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the proposal and just one Republican — outgoing Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe — voted with Democrats to defeat it.
GOP senators used the debate to once again lash the administration for trying to require all employers, even those affiliated with religions, to provide a service they objected to.
“This is discrimination masquerading as compassion, and I am going to fight it,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, argued during an impassioned floor speech. “My oath of office, an oath to protect the Constitution, compels me to.”
Later, Hatch said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune that he thinks his faith sometimes depends on Mormon politicians to fight for religious concerns.
“I can’t speak for the church,” Hatch said, “but I think [it] relies on people like my fellow members here in Congress to carry the ball for them on issues like this.”
While the senator wasn’t sure why LDS leaders were silent on the issue of contraceptive heath-care coverage, he wondered aloud whether it could be fallout from Mormon support of Proposition 8, a California ballot proposition that banned same-sex marriage and drew big-time financial backing from LDS adherents.
“And of course, the church has been badly mistreated on the Proposition 8 situation,” Hatch said, “so this is one where our friends in the Catholic Church were really carrying the load.”
The Utah senator, who has endorsed Romney, said he’s never been urged by church leaders to vote one way or another and he doubts Romney has either. Romney knows what’s “right and what’s wrong,” Hatch said, and the presidential candidate’s positions align with that.
“He’s in a position no matter what he does, someone is going to criticize him,” Hatch said. Romney hasn’t “had any trouble standing up for his personal beliefs.”
It helps when those beliefs also dovetail with those of his Mormon faith. Although LDS leaders “strongly discourage” permanent solutions such as vasectomies and tubal ligations, they have stayed out of the latest fray over contraceptives. Even so, they have warned in the past that churches should sound alarms when government intrudes on religious freedoms.
“The religious community must unite to be sure we are not coerced or deterred into silence by … intimidation or threatening rhetoric,” apostle Dallin H. Oaks said in a February 2011 speech to Chapman University’s law school. “Whether or not such actions are anti-religious, they are surely anti-democratic and should be condemned by all who are interested in democratic government.”