Washington (CNN) - Half of all Americans say they oppose the Obama administration's new policy concerning employer-provided health insurance plans and their coverage of contraceptive services for female employees including those at religiously affiliated institutions, according to a new national survey.
The push by the White House has been sharply criticized by Catholic Church officials, and many political pundits have said that the controversy could hurt President Barack Obama's re-election chances with Catholic voters. But a CNN/ORC International poll released Thursday also indicates that the vast majority of Catholic Americans say they don't always follow church teachings on such issues as abortion and birth control, and few Americans Catholics believe artificial means of birth control are wrong.
According to the survey, 50% of the public disapproves of the Obama administration policy, with 44% saying they approve of the plan. The margin is right at the edge of the poll's sampling error.
Surveys on this topic tell a mixed story because many Americans know little about the issue. Recent CBS and Fox polls indicate support for the new policy, using questions that describe the new policy in some detail. But in the CNN poll, when asked their opinion of the Obama policy with no details spelled out, support was much less and a large partisan divide emerged. A recent Pew poll also suggests Americans are closely divided, and that poll may hold the key to the differences. Nearly four in ten Americans say they have heard nothing at all about this controversy.
"The CNN poll illustrates the road ahead for the White House," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "If the administration can't inform more Americans about the details of the policy - details that some other polls show to be popular - the public is likely to split along party lines. Many will dislike the plan simply due to the fact that this is an Obama initiative."
"It's a lot like President Obama's overall health care measure, which most Americans say they oppose even though they approve of many of the specific programs in the new law - opponents can use it against the president as long as they can keep the focus on who made the policy rather than what the policy actually does," adds Holland.
The President announced an accommodation Friday in the dispute. Under the new plan, religiously affiliated universities and hospitals will not be forced to offer contraception coverage to their employees. Insurers will be required, however, to offer complete coverage free of charge to women who work at such institutions. Female employees at churches themselves will have no guarantee of any contraception coverage – a continuation of current law.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced Obama's compromise last week soon after the president's announcement, saying the proposal raises "serious moral concerns," according to a statement posted on its website.
But the poll indicates that Americans, including American Catholics, are unconcerned about contraception and birth control. Roughly eight in ten disagree with the belief that using artificial means of birth control is wrong, and nearly nine in ten American Catholics say that they don't feel the need to obey Church teachings on moral issues like abortion and birth control.
"This is not a new phenomenon," says Holland. "Polls have found widespread support for artificial means of birth control since the 1980s, and since the 1990s, polls have found that American Catholics believe that they should make up their own minds on moral issues rather than always following Church teachings on those issues."
According to the survey, there's also a partisan divide on the issue, with seven out of ten Democrats supporting the new Obama administration policy, independent voters divided, and the vast majority of Republicans opposed. Both congressional Republicans and the GOP presidential candidates have been critical of the president and the White House on this issue.
The CNN poll was conducted by ORC International from February 10-13, with 1,026 adult Americans questioned by telephone. The survey's overall sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.