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. But what does this figure really mean, and where does it come from?
"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." New York Times, Feb. 10
"Birth-control is widely used even by Catholics: 98 percent of American Catholic women have used contraception in their lifetimes." Washington Post, Feb. 12
"Ninety-eight 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
The 98 percent figure first appeared in an April 2011 study written by Rachel K. Jones and Joerg Dreweke of the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit 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 2006-08 National Survey of Family Growth, which relied on 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 were using no method at all. That has led to criticism of the statistic.
The Guttmacher Institute, citing "confusion" over the statistic, last week posted the 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 said the women were asked to answer "yes" or "no" whether they had used each of the different forms; only 2 percent had said they had used only natural family planning.
In other words, a woman may have had sex only once, or she may have had a partner who used a condom only 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."
The full survey 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; 5 percent IUD.
Again, only 2 percent currently used natural family planning. Interestingly, 11 percent used nothing, even though they were not trying to get pregnant.
If a statistic sounds too good to be true, be wary. 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.