(Photo: REUTERS/Joshua Lott)
Republican presidential candidates turned a question about birth control into a question about religious freedom in Wednesday night's CNN debate in Arizona.
The crowd booed host John King when he asked the candidates if they personally use birth control. The question was selected by CNN from questions posted by viewers on the Internet.
"There is a legitimate question about the power of the government to impose on religion activities which any religion opposes," former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich answered.
Gingrich was referring to Obama's mandate requiring employers to provide health insurance that would provide free birth control, sterilization and abortifacients. The mandate's religious exemption is written so narrowly that most religious groups would not qualify.
As he has in previous debates, Gingrich also accused the media of bias. Reporters suggest Republicans are extremist on birth control, Gingrich argued, but did not ask President Barack Obama to defend his opposition to a bill that would protect an infant born alive during a botched abortion.
"You did not once, in the 2008 campaign, not once ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of infanticide. ... If we're going to have a debate about who the extremist is on these issues, it is President Obama who as a state senator voted to protect doctors who kill babies who survived an abortion. It is not the Republicans," Gingrich said.
Former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney also accused Obama of religious intolerance for the birth control mandate.
"I don't think we've seen, in the history of this country, the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we've seen under Barack Obama," Romney said.
Romney also criticized Obama for opposing, during a recent Supreme Court argument, a broad exemption for religious institutions in labor laws.
Romney pointed out that even the liberal judges in that decision disagreed with Obama, saying, "They voted 9-0 against President Obama. His position on religious tolerance is clear."
When asked why, as president, he would talk about cultural issues, such as contraception, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum argued that there are some serious issues beyond cutting spending and limited government that should be talked about by a president.
"We have a problem in this country and the family is fracturing. Over 40 percent of the children born in this country are born out of wedlock. How can a country survive if children are being raised in homes where it is so much harder to succeed economically? It's five times the rate of poverty in single parent households than it is in two parent homes.
"We hear this all the time: 'cut spending, limited government, everything will be fine.' No, everything's not going to be fine. There are bigger problems at stake in America and someone has got to go out there, I will, and talk about these things."
Santorum added, though, that unlike "the left," he does not think that the solutions to these issues start with creating a new federal program.
Texas Congressman Ron Paul pointed out that, as an obstetrician, he has medical experience with birth control pills and contraception. Obama's birth control mandate, though, is due to the government taking over health care, according to Paul.
"This is a consequence of the fact that the government has control of medical care and medical insurance and then we fight over how we dictate how this will be distributed," Paul said.
Paul also argued that if the birth control pill is legal then the morning-after pill should also be legal because "they're basically the same hormonally."
Wednesday night's debate in Mesa, Ariz., was the last GOP debate before next week's primaries in Arizona and Michigan. It may also be the final Republican debate of the 2012 primary.
The candidates were asked to describe themselves with one word. Paul said "consistent," Santorum said "courage," and Romney said "resolute." Gingrich, though, gave the most surprising answer – "cheerful."