Just two days after reproductive justice, human rights, and development groups celebrated World Contraception Day, a new survey confirmed what most have known for a long time — America thinks contraception use is just fine. In fact, only 4 percent of Americans surveyed said the use of contraception was morally wrong — even when factoring in Catholics and evangelical Christians.
The survey, released by the Pew Research Center on Sept. 28, polled more than 4,500 adults on the use of contraception and other recent “values” controversies in an effort to put data to the often-public communications breakdowns between America’s understanding of religious liberty and nondiscrimination. Other hot button issues in the survey included whether businesses should be required to provide wedding services to same-sex couples, and whether transgender people should be able to use the restrooms of the gender with which they identify — both of which revealed national opinion to be nearly evenly split.
When it comes to contraception, the results are unambiguous — 36 percent of Americans think using birth control is morally acceptable, and 57 percent don’t think it’s a moral question at all. Even among Catholics who attend Mass every week — and would be likely to be familiar with the Catholic Church’s teaching that artificial contraception is a sin — a full 45 percent say it is morally acceptable. Just 13 percent of weekly Mass-attending Catholics surveyed said contraception is morally wrong.
But the study hints at a divide, in the minds of many, between private morality and public policy. Two-thirds of Americans, including a majority among Jews, black Protestants, and “nones,” say employers should be required to include contraception coverage in their health insurance plans, regardless of religious objection. But nearly 50 percent of white evangelical Protestants say employers should be allowed to refuse birth control coverage to employees.
Interestingly, the study asked survey respondents about their willingness to sympathize with arguments on either side before asking them about their own views — a defenses-raising choice that may help explain our apparently low levels of compassion for the debates: While approximately 20 percent of respondents could sympathize with either side of debates on contraception, serving same-sex couples, and transgender bathroom use, 15-20 percent said they had no sympathy for either side, and the others for only one side.
“One of the goals of the survey was to see how many Americans feel torn because they can understand where both sides are coming from on these issues. The short answer is: not many,” wrote the authors of the Pew study. “Relatively few took the opportunity to express at least some sympathy for both sides.”
In particular, this played out over the question of contraception: Only one-in-four Americans who say employers should be able to refuse birth control coverage out of religious objection say they can sympathize with the argument for required coverage. And only one-in-five who favor a requirement to provide birth control say they can sympathize with religious objection.
The survey begins to put numbers to the double-edged sword of religious conscience, a tension many faithful are wrestling through — if your faith teaching objects to a social action, but others say that denying it is doing them harm, what’s the best way to reconcile? And is the outrage of a few representative of the necessary freedoms of many?
The study sadly did not include a question about Starbucks’ red cups. Then again, the results would likely not surprise you.