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In Contraception Clash, Catholic Latinas Stray From Doctrine

As the Saint Jude Catholic Church's sanctuary reverberated with the tunes of a Spanish language band shortly before mass on Sunday evening, Amparo Gonzalez, 56, sat in a nearby pew, thumbing through this week’s church bulletin.

There, stamped on page two in English and Spanish, was a stern letter from San Diego’s bishop, Robert Brom, calling President Obama's recent rule requiring that religious institutions' health plans cover contraception unjust. He said it violated the collective Catholic conscience.

But after reading it, Gonzalez shrugged.

"I used them for nine years," she said, unapologetically. "I always took care of myself. I decided to have three children. And I didn’t say, 'whatever God would like to give me.' No, it’s my body, it’s my decision.”

In recent weeks, Catholic bishops across the country have turned to their congregations to pressure Obama to repeal his contraception rule. And since Latinos now make up about one-third of all Catholics in the U.S., they should be key players in that campaign.

But women like Gonzalez offer a stark truth, and explain why Latinos’ response has been tepid, almost nonexistent. Polling and data suggest that Gonzalez is among a vast majority of Latina women who have not only used contraception, but who do so even in spite of their churches’ stance on it.

“The reality is that an overwhelming majority of our community uses contraception,” said Kimberly Inez McGuire, a policy analyst at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, which supports contraceptive options for women.

She cited findings from a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control that 97 percent of sexually active Latinas between the ages 15 and 44 had used some form of contraception. The institute’s analysis of the study’s data further found that 96 percent of Catholic Latinas had also used some form, she said.

“It may be that in many cases their church leaders are saying something different, but they feel very comfortable doing what they need to do to take care of their health,” Inez McGuire said.

To be sure, not all Catholic Latinas agree. Women like 39-year-old Dulce Maria Silva, a parishioner at El Cajon’s Our Lady of Grace Church, support strict adherence to Catholic doctrine.<

“Because my faith is very important, yes I’m a Latina, but first and foremost I am Catholic, so I do uphold the church’s teachings,” she said.

But if the Obama administration had any concerns that its clash with Catholics over contraception might alienate Latinos – who voted for Obama at a rate of nearly 70 percent in 2008 -- the statistics are likely to put them to rest.

Gary Segura, a Stanford political science professor and principal of the national polling firm Latino Decisions, said that by and large, when faced with conflicts between the conservative moral doctrine of their religion and their liberal political tendencies, Latinos tend to side with their political liberalism.

“Every poll that we’ve ever done shows that moral issues are not how Latinos vote,” Segura said.

His firm has never polled Latinos on their political stances on contraception, but Segura said that in other polls, moral issues like abortion or gay marriage have never emerged as important electoral concerns.

“And if they’re not going to vote against Democrats on abortion, they’re sure not going to vote against Democrats on contraception,” he said.

He said Latinos’ top concern this election year was the same as everyone else’s: the economy. That was followed by immigration, education and health care.

That may not be a surprise, given that Latinos have been hit hard by the recession.

That's true in working class neighborhoods like San Diego’s Southcrest, where by 7 o’clock Sunday night, Gonzalez’s church was packed. People stood outside craning their necks to watch mass through the doors.

Shortly before it started, I asked Gonzalez whether the stern message her church had been sending about contraceptives tugged, even a little, at her moral sense of good and bad.

“They’re not bad,” she said. “What’s bad is bringing a child into the world to suffer, to go hungry and sick, to not get an education. That’s worse. I love God, but it’s also my life. He gave it to me, but I make my own decisions.”

Then she chuckled, adding, “With his consent.”