Irrelevant, but untrue that 98 percent use contraception

If you’ve absorbed just one thing from news reports over the past couple of weeks about the threat to religious liberty contained in new U.S. health care regulations, it is probably one statistic that has been repeated over and over in the media and by political advocacy groups. 

Here’s how the White House blog put it, but it was formulated very similarly in very many other places: “According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, most women, including 98 percent of Catholic women, have used contraception” (italics added). 

Let’s stipulate up front that for the purposes of the religious freedom question, it would be irrelevant even if it was shown that 100 percent of Catholic woman use contraception. To borrow an analogy, if it turns out that a bunch of Quakers own gun licenses, it would make it no less morally unconscionable and a grave violation of religious liberty to force their expressly Quaker employer to pay for their range fees or provide them with free ammunition. 

But putting the relevance issue aside for a minute, is that statistic even true? 

The closer you look at the study, the more obvious that it isn’t.  

For starters, the data itself on Catholic women describes 11 percent who use no contraceptive method, and 2 percent who use Natural Family Planning. So right away, we’re talking about a maximum of 87 percent of Catholic contraceptive users. 

But look even closer, and you see that the subset of women the statistic describes is narrower than you’ve seen acknowledged in any reports. I mean, much narrower. 

As Molly Ziegler at media watchdog GetReligion.org, summarizes after crunching the numbers: “I guess we could say that among women aged 15-44 who had sex in the last three months but aren’t pregnant, post-partum or trying to get pregnant, 87 percent of women who identify as Catholic used contraception. ... Great stat, team journalist! I mean, the study was designed to find only women who would be most likely to use contraception. And it did.” 

Lydia McGrew, a blogger who also did a “debunking” of the “98 percent” statistic that was widely noticed, including by the Washington Post, has a pretty sane and convincing analysis: “The intention of the study was to answer something like the following question: ‘Among women of various religious groups who are now sexually active but do not wish to become pregnant, what percentage use different methods of avoiding pregnancy?’ But the purpose for which the statistic for Catholic women from the study is now being used is to argue, ‘A very high percentage of Catholic women (or, perhaps, Catholic women of child-bearing age) are currently not following the Catholic Church’s teachings on sex and contraception. ...’ For that purpose, these statistics are bogus.” 

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