“98 percent of Catholic women, I am told by all of you, use birth control to determine the size and timing of their families.”

--House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Feb. 16, 2012

Ever since the battle erupted between Catholic bishops and the Obama administration over providing free contraception coverage as part of health plans for workers, a striking figure has appeared in the news — that 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraceptives.

 “Birth-control is widely used even by Catholics: 98 percent of American Catholic women have used contraception in their lifetimes.”

The Washington Post, Feb. 12


“In fact, 98 percent of Catholic women use birth control at some point in their lifetimes.”

National Public Radio, Feb. 10


“Studies have shown that 98 percent of Catholic women have used artificial contraception at some time in their lives.”

The New York Times, Feb. 10

 Small wonder that Pelosi cited the media — “I am told by all of you” — when she made her comment on Thursday. But what does this figure really mean and where does it come from?


The Facts

 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.

 Jones noted that there has long been data showing that Catholic women are avid users of artificial contraception. The first NSFG survey, which in 1973 was administered only to married women, shows that 66.4 percent of all married Catholic women of child-bearing age at the time used contraception. (Table 17). Among those using birth control, only 8.3 percent relied on rhythm; 2.9 percent relied on withdrawal. (Table 18).

The Pinocchio Test

If a statistic sounds too good to be true, be wary. A spokesman for Pelosi said she was saying that 98 percent of Catholic women have used birth control at some point in their lives — because that is how the media characterized it.

 But, judging from the examples above, the media has gotten it wrong. The journalistic shorthand has been that “98 percent of American Catholic women have used contraception in their lifetimes.”  But that is incorrect, according to the research.

 “The shorthand is not what our statistic shows since we only looked at women aged 15-44 who have ever had sex,” Jones said.

 The NSFG data on women of child-bearing age certainly may still be relevant to the debate over contraception, because these are the women who today might have a need for access to free birth control. The data also shows that there are few differences between women of different religions in terms of contraceptive use; there was not much difference back in 1973 but the gaps have narrowed even further today. But that still does not excuse the media’s sloppy shorthand for this statistic.

 Two Pinocchios — to the media

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