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63 percent of voters back Obama birth control policy

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Nearly two-thirds of Americans favor President Barack Obama’s policy requiring birth control coverage for female employees, including clear majorities of Roman Catholic, Protestant evangelical and independent voters, a poll showed on Thursday.

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey of 1,500 adults showed public opinion breaking more strongly according to party affiliation than gender on contraceptives, with 83 percent of Democrats, 62 percent of independents and 42 percent of Republicans favoring the policy.

Sixty-three percent of Americans overall supported it, according to the data.

Adopted earlier this month as part of Obama’s 2010 healthcare reform law, the policy requires most employers to provide health insurance coverage for women’s contraceptives without co-pays or deductibles.

Obama offered a compromise to religiously affiliated institutions, including Catholic-run hospitals and universities that oppose artificial contraception, by requiring insurers to cover the cost of birth control coverage for their employees.

The rule does not apply to places of worship, including churches, synagogues and mosques.

But Catholic leaders, Protestant evangelical groups, Republicans and other social conservatives rejected the compromise, saying it still violates religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution and would cause economic hardship for self-insured institutions.

The controversy has spawned a rancorous debate in Congress as well as a handful of Catholic lawsuits, including a federal suit in Nebraska joined by seven U.S. states.

The Kaiser poll was released hours before the U.S. Senate was due to vote on a Republican measure that would exempt insurance plans and employers from offering coverage that violated a religious or moral conviction.

The measure is largely symbolic because the Democratic-controlled chamber is expected to vote it down.

But the debate has provided both sides with an opportunity for election year posturing, and some of Kaiser’s polling data could offer better news to Democrats than to Republicans.

In Senate debate, Democrats have cast themselves as defenders of women’s healthcare services in hopes of appealing to independent voters, particularly women.

The February 13-19 poll, with an overall sampling error of 3 percentage points, shows that 67 percent of independent women voters and 58 percent of independent men support the president’s policy.

Senate Republicans have staked their fate on a religious liberty argument calculated to resonate with conservative Catholics and like-minded voters in important political swing states, including Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

But the data suggest an uphill struggle, with 60 percent of Catholics and 57 percent of Evangelicals favoring Obama’s policy.

The federal birth control rule is not a major 2012 election campaign theme for voters, however, at least not yet. Fewer than 1 percent of respondents mentioned women’s health or birth control as top election year issues.

“At a time when the Republican presidential primary and the presidential election often dominates the news cycle, twice as many Americans (50 percent) feel as though the contraceptive coverage debate is driven by election year politics as believe it would have been a major debate in any year (24 percent),” Kaiser said in a report that accompanied the poll data.

(Editing by Paul Simao)

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