02/15/2012 01:37 pm ET Updated Apr 16, 2012

The Birth Control Debate That Isn't Happening

It's 2012, but to hear the Right talk about birth control, and "emotional" women in the workforce and the military, one might think we're trapped in Downton Abbey's 1914. Is this another example of Republicans staking out positions far outside the mainstream? Or do voters oppose coverage of birth control? In last week's debate over birth control, everyone in Washington seemed to have an opinion. But polls show the public's opinion is fairly consistent.

Today's New York Times/CBS News poll shows nearly two-thirds (66 percent) support requiring private health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control. About as many (61 percent) want to see the same coverage for women employees at religiously-affiliated institutions. Greg Sargent has some demographic breakouts, showing even half of Republicans support full coverage of birth control.

Yesterday's Pew Research Center poll showed somewhat different results, with slightly more voters wanting to give religiously-affiliated institutions exemption from coverage requirements (48 percent) than not (44 percent). However, there is an important difference between the two surveys. The Pew poll only asked this question of those who had heard at least some about the issue. Republicans were more likely to have heard about the issue than either Democrats or independents. And Tea Party aligned Republicans were far more likely to have heard a lot about the issue than other Republicans, liberal Democrats, or moderate/conservative Democrats. No doubt this yields a more conservative result.

Last week the Public Religion Research Institute released a survey showing a majority of voters say employers should provide contraception coverage at no cost. Even a majority of Catholics (58 percent) agreed. In fact, even a majority of Catholics (52 percent) agreed that religiously-affiliated institutions should have to provide that coverage.

None of this is surprising, given that 98 percent of Catholic women who have ever had sex have also used birth control, according to the Guttmacher Institute. So it's also not surprising that Obama has not taken a hit with Catholics in the wake of this debate.

Further, there seems to be no mandate for heavy-handed government involvement in social issues. The NYT/CBS poll showed two-thirds of voters overall and of Republicans say economic issues will drive their vote more than social issues. And this Gallup trend line suggests fewer voters want to see government "promote traditional values" than in the 1990s. It's also worth mentioning that many surveys have shown major movement in recent years on other social issues, such as gay marriage.

On Downton Abbey, daughter Sybil challenges her father by wearing pants and going to political rallies. As she laments the lack of women's suffrage, chauffeur Branson observes, "Politicians can't often recognize the changes that are inevitable." But these days it seems many Republican politicians can't even recognize changes that have already happened. Much to the chagrin of Downton's Lord Grantham and some Republican leaders, women wear pants, work, and use birth control.