Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Claim that 98 Percent of Catholic Women Use Contraception: A Media Foul

The 98-percent figure first appeared in an April 2011 study written by Rachel K. Jones and Joerg Dreweke of the Guttmacher Institute, which is a non-profit organization that promotes reproductive health and had started as an arm of Planned Parenthood. The study is titled “Countering Conventional Wisdom: New Evidence on Religion and Contraceptive Use.”

The study drew on data from the 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth, which relied on in-person interviews with 7,356 females from the ages of 15 to 44.

 But while the study says that 98 percent of “sexually experienced Catholic women” have “ever used a contraceptive method other than natural planning,” the data shown in the report does not actually back up that claim. In fact, a supplementary table in the report, on page 8, even appears to undermine that statistic, since it shows that 11 percent of Catholic women currently using no method at all. That has led to criticism of the statistic.

 The Guttmacher Institute, citing “confusion” over the statistic, on Wednesday posted the actual data behind it. It turns out it was based on a question that asked self-identified Catholic women who have had sex if they have ever used one of 12 methods of birth control. Jones, in an interview, said the women were asked to answer “yes” or “no” whether they had used each of the different forms; only two percent had said they had used only natural family planning.

In other words, a woman may have sex only once, or she may have had a partner who only used a condom once, and then she would be placed in the 98 percent category. Jones said the correct way to describe the results of the research is this:

 “Data shows that 98 percent of sexually experienced women of child-bearing age and who identify themselves as Catholic have used a method of contraception other than natural family planning at some point in their lives.”

 As she pointed out, “In social science circles, sexually active means you had sex recently. Sexually experienced means you’ve had sex at least once.” The full NSFG survey (table 5) shows that 86.8 percent of women ages 15-44 have had vaginal intercourse.

The data listed in the Guttmacher report, meanwhile, referred to current contraceptive use among “sexually active women who are not pregnant, post-partum or trying to get pregnant.” That is a smaller universe of women, and it shows that 68 percent of Catholic women used what are termed “highly effective methods:” 32 percent sterilization; 31 percent pill; five percent IUD.

 Again, only two percent currently used natural family planning. Interestingly, 11 percent used nothing, even though they were not trying to get pregnant. Four percent were placed in an “other” category, which mainly consisted of “withdrawal,” which is also not accepted by the Catholic Church as a birth-control method.

 The data also indicated there were relatively few differences among women of different religions in terms of the contraception method that was used. Evangelicals appeared more likely to rely on sterilization, but almost no one used “natural” family planning.