The Washington Post and its “Fact Checker,” Glenn Kessler, gave the media a rating of “two pinocchios” for failing to verify a claim made by President Obama and repeated by others including the press concerning the number of Catholic women using birth control.
In a February 10th press briefing, the President used a “nearly 99 percent” figure. This was repeated by Rep. Nancy Pelosi later when she said “Ninety-eight percent of Catholic women, I am told by all of you [referring to the media], use birth control to determine the size and timing of their families.” This misinformation follows the old adage that if you keep repeating a lie, people will actually believe it.
The story erupted over the continuing battle between religious organizations led by the Catholic Church and the Obama Administration over religious liberty. Obama, in a hollow gesture to the Catholic Church, noted that he could not understand why the Catholic Church was so concerned about birth control because “Nearly 99 percent of all women have relied on contraception at some point in their lives.” The president’s data came from a CDC report stating that “more than 99% of women 15-44 years of age who have ever had sexual intercourse with a male (referred to as “sexually experienced women”) have used at least one contraceptive method.”
This data is similar to that presented by the Guttmacher Institute, formerly an arm of Planned Parenthood, in an April 2011 study based on a 2006-2008 study by the National Survey of Family Growth. The careful language of the President included “at some point in their lives.” This is as factual as saying that “nearly 99 percent of all car drivers have exceeded the speed limit at some point in their lives.” In his “Fact Checker,” Kessler decided to look into the numbers, especially since Pelosi cited the media as her source of information.
He found that the 98% figure didn’t make sense because population groups did not include those women who have never had sexual intercourse. The Guttmacher study provided a glimpse of this number. The study reported that overall, 79% are sexually experienced (that is defined as one encounter of sexual intercourse in a lifetime). Among Catholics, Guttmacher reports that number to be 89%. Furthermore, the report cites the fact that “never-married women of reproductive age who attend religious services every week are less likely to ever have sex than those who attend less frequently (48% vs. 74-80%).”
An additional parsing of the data presents a quite different picture by looking at current birth control use by Catholic women (a more relevant figure). The survey defined this as “those who had had sex in the three months prior to the survey and were not pregnant, postpartum or trying to get pregnant.” For those women:
- 2% use Natural Family Planning
- 32% use sterilization
- 31% use the Pill or other hormonal contraceptives
- 5% use the IUD
- 15% use the condom
- 4% use other methods
- 11% use no method at all.
This still misses a large demographic among women between the ages of 15 and 44 – those women who are not sexually active, not pregnant, postpartum, or trying to get pregnant.
Is there good news from this data? One finding is that the 99% number is incorrect because it only looks at sexually active women who have had intercourse at least once in their lives. It also shows that there are a significant number of Catholic women who have never had sexual intercourse (11%), another significant number of women who are sexually active who either use no birth control or use Natural Family Planning (13%), and an unreported number of women who are pregnant, postpartum, or trying to get pregnant.
Kessler concludes that the media have gotten it wrong. The journalistic short hand has been that ’98 percent of American Catholic women have used contraception in their lifetimes.’” While this is not exactly overwhelming data in the opposite direction, it does show the fabrication of the concept that nearly everyone between the ages of 14 and 44 is having sexual intercourse in the United States. This is not the time for the American Catholic bishops and leaders to throw up their hands. It is an opportunity to portray the beauty of natural family planning (NFP) and how it can be used to both postpone a pregnancy, and to bring about a level of respect and honor among couples not found in the contraception, sterilization, and abortion world.