WASHINGTON -- The economy still may dominate the nation’s to-do list, but a nation divided in its values continues to passionately debate social issues: abortion, birth control and gay marriage.
The nation’s view of gay rights is evolving. After a string of 32 states have voted to ban gay marriage, four more states are poised to vote this fall – Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington – and analysts say one or more could vote in favor of gay marriage.
Many are debating who should pay for contraception, a new issues since President Barack Obama’s administration this year ordered insurance plans to cover contraception, at no cost to women.
And nearly four decades after the Supreme Court legalized abortion, the issue remains unsettled, with proposed restrictions pushing the issue to the forefront once again.
At the top of American politics, Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney hold very different views. Obama is the social liberal, supporting access to abortion without restriction, mandating free contraception for women, and changing his mind this year to endorse gay marriage. Romney is socially conservative, opposing gay marriage and abortion rights, and saying the government should not mandate free contraception.
Here’s where the two major party candidates stand on these major issues:
Obama this year became the first sitting U.S. president to endorse same-sex marriage, though he said the matter should be left to the states. The change came in May amid pressure from gay rights activists and some members of his own party, including Vice President Joe Biden.
Obama has supported other gay causes – including repealing the military’s requirement that gay service members keep their sexual preferences secret and offering LGBT workers – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender – family leave, but he had long insisted his views on gay marriage were “evolving.” He said he reached his decision after speaking with his wife, Michelle, and contemplating his religious beliefs.
“When we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated,” he told ABC News.
Obama opposes the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage even for couples married under state law. He says the 1996 law that defines marriage as between only one man and one woman is unconstitutional and directed the Justice Department to stop defending the law in court.
Romney opposes same-sex marriage and civil unions but does not object to benefits for homosexual couples.
Romney would preserve the Defense of Marriage Act and fight for a similar federal constitutional amendment, which could not be altered by individual states.
Nearly two decades ago, Romney vowed to be a better advocate for LGBT equality than his opponent at the time for the Massachusetts Senate seat, Democrat Ted Kennedy, though as governor he backed a failed attempt to amend the state constitution defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
“Marriage is a status. It’s not an activity that goes on within the walls of a state,” he said at a debate last year. “And a result our marriage status relationship should be constant across the country.”
Obama supports abortion rights, saying the government should not intrude on private family matters. “We shouldn’t have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health care decisions on behalf of women,” he said this year.
He has picked Supreme Court nominees who are believed to be willing to uphold the Roe v. Wade decision and likely would do so with future picks.
He wants to maintain strict limitations on federal funding for abortions. After signing the new health care law, he issued an executive order restricting federal funds for abortion. (The law also requires states to offer at least one health plan that doesn’t cover abortions, and women who pick plans that cover abortions must pay a fee of at least $1 to a separate account to help ensure that no federal dollars are used to support the procedures.)
Romney has pledged to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade.
Romney has said he would support legislation to protect unborn children capable of feeling pain from abortion. He has said he would reverse Obama’s decision that lifted a ban on federal money from being used to fund international family-planning clinics that promote abortion or provide counseling or referrals about abortions.
He called Roe v. Wade “one of the darkest moments in Supreme Court history” – saying the issue should be decided at the state level – but would not push for an amendment to ban abortion. But, he said, if Congress passed a bill banning abortion he would sign it.
Romney had been supportive of abortion rights when seeking the Massachusetts governorship in 2002, but by 2006 he was saying he was firmly anti-abortion. He allows for exceptions in the cases of rape, incest and to save the life of the woman.
But he caused confusion when he said during a recent visit to Iowa that there was no abortion legislation that would become part of his agenda. Later, his campaign said he would “support legislation aimed at providing greater protections for life.”
Obama’s administration implemented rules that require insurance companies and self-insured employers to cover contraceptives with no co-pay or deductible. If a religiously affiliated organization objects to providing that coverage, its insurance still is required to cover contraception at no cost to women.
Obama also supports federal funds for Planned Parenthood, which provides many services including birth control. The organization says 46 percent of its funding – about $487.4 million – comes from the state and federal governments.
Romney said he would rescind Obama’s policy as well as the federal health care law, both of which provide contraception without co-pays. He backed a proposal in Congress from Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that would have allowed insurers and employees to deny coverage for birth control if they found it morally objectionable. The proposal failed.
Romney pledges to stop the federal contribution to Planned Parenthood and end spending on family planning programs.
He has backed some personhood bills that some say ban common forms of birth control, but he said he would oppose banning contraception. “Contraception, it’s working just fine,” he said at a debate in January. “Just leave it alone.”