Do 98% of Catholic women really use contraceptives?

by Jay Johansen
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Feb 20, 2012. The Obama administration has enacted a regulation that requires all employers in the United States to provide their employees with company-paid health insurance that includes contraceptives at no charge to the employees. Catholic organizations, like Catholic hospitals and schools, objected to this. Their church teaching specifically forbids the use of contraceptives, and so it would be a violation of their religious freedom to force them to pay to provide contraceptives to their employees.

Supporters of the policy have repeatedly brought up a statistic that 98% of Catholic women use contraceptives. They say this statistic comes from a study done by the Guttmacher Institute.

I found this statistic a little too extreme to believe. Guttmacher is affiliated with Planned Parenthood and is very openly in favor of the widespread use of contraception, so it's fair to ask if there might be some bias to the study. So I got a copy of their report on this study. It turns out that, even assuming that their report is 100% honest and accurate, the statistic means a whole lot less than it sounds like it means.

For this study they called someone "Catholic" based on self-identification. But they were honest enough to ask a couple of questions that help us determine how serious the identification was. 11% of the Catholics said they never attend religious services, and another 29% said they attend less than once a month. So 40% of the so-called Catholics rarely if ever attend mass. Furthermore, only 46% said that religion is "very important to their daily life". If someone doesn't even bother to show up for services, and doesn't consider her faith important to her daily life, is she really Catholic or does she just come from a Catholic family?

The 98% is the percentae who "have ever used" contraception, not "are currently using". Okay, if a woman used contraception for 10 years, but has now quit because she wants to have a baby, and fully intends to start using again after the baby is born, it is fair to call her a "user of contraceptives". But if a woman used contraceptives for a few months twenty years ago and then decided not to use them any more for whatever reason, Guttmacher counts her as contraceptive user. Someone who used contraceptives, then converted to Catholicism and, in keeping with the teaching of her new-found faith, quit using them, is counted as a "Catholic contraceptive user". Indeed, someone who is actively campaigning against the use of contraceptives is counted as a contraceptive user if she ever, even once, used them.

Guttmacher limited their study to women who are "at risk of unintended pregnancy". Thus:

So, Guttmacher set out to prove that the vast majority of women use contraceptives. Then they specifically excluded from their study any woman who was unlikely to give the answer they didn't want to hear. Women who want to get pregnant are unlikely to use contraceptives -- so they were excluded from the survey. Single women who practice abstinence to prevent pregnancy have no need to use contraceptives -- so they were excluded from the survey. After excluding all the women who have no need to use contraceptives or who have no desire to use contraceptives, they found that almost all of the remainder use contraceptives! What a surprise!

This a little like publishing a press release with the headline, "98% of Americans are homeless!", and then down in the small print mentioning that you excluded from the survey anyone who owned a home, rented an apartment, or lived in a dorm or barracks.

Politicians are using this study to prove that Catholic women do not agree with the teachings of their church and are not following it. But in particular considering an unmarried Catholic woman: if she is following the teachings of her church, she is not going to be having sex. So Guttmacher has found that, of the Catholic women who do not follow the teachings of their church, 98% do not follow the teachings of their church. Amazing!

Even if the statistic was accurate: So what? The whole point of the complaint by these Catholic organizations is that these regulations are an attack on their freedom of religion. The fact that someone does not agree with a particular religious teaching does not mean that they are in favor of the government taking away the rights of others to practice it. I am not Catholic and I have no objection to birth control in principle. But I am deeply concerned about this policy. Sure, it doesn't directly affect me. But if the government can force a religious organization to actively support a practice that their religion condemns in this case, is there any reason to believe it will stop with this one policy? Today they force Catholics to pay for contraception. Who will they force to violate their religious beliefs or personal morals tomorrow?

I wonder how the people who support this policy would react if a future president relied on this precedent to require all employers to pay for psychological counseling to help homosexuals become heterosexual -- including gay rights groups. If you believe these cases are different, please explain to me why homosexuals have a right to follow their own conscience, but Catholics don't.

Source: Jones, Rachel K., and Dreweke, Joerg. Countering Conventional Wisdom: New Evidence on Religion and Contraceptive Use Guttmacher Institute: April, 2011.

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Feb 24, 2012

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