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Fudging the figures on contraception

The White House says 98% of Catholic women have used contraceptives. Its own statistics do not support this.
Michael Cook | 14 February 2012
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Politically speaking, President Obama is in a very strong position as he tries to force universal coverage for contraception, including sterilisation and the morning-after pill, upon employers. So why does his Administration have to tell porkies to bolster his case?

Porky 1: it’s the fault of the guys in robes and funny hats

Let’s start with the narrative most widely retailed in the media: that Obama’s opponent is the nation’s Catholic bishops. Nope. It is true that the Catholic bishops are adamantly opposed. Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, has been savage in his criticism:

“Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This shouldn't happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights."

But opposition is not coming only from Catholics. By no means. Take Pastor Rick Warren. This is the evangelical minister whom the media called “Obama’s favourite fundamentalist”. The President asked him to give the invocation at his inauguration in 2009. He may be the best known evangelical in the US.

Warren is fiercely opposed to Obama’s policy. This was his tweet on February 7: "I'm not a Catholic but I stand in 100% solidarity with my brothers & sisters to practice their belief against govt pressure." And he followed it up with another "I'd go to jail rather than cave in to a government mandate that violates what God commands us to do. Would you? Acts 5:29." 

And R. Albert Mohler, Jr., the President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a leading evangelical thinker, is behind the bishops on this issue, despite deep theological differences with Catholics:

“The President wants to frame this as a Catholic issue, but it is not. The Roman Catholic Church is the major religious body that maintains teaching against all forms of artificial birth control, but those moral concerns are not limited to the Catholic Church. The mandated coverage would violate the conscience and deepest convictions of millions of American evangelical Christians and their hundreds of schools and institutions which, put together, outnumber Catholic institutions.” [italics added]

So the Administration’s attempt to paint this controversy as a Catholic issue is plainly false.

Porky 2: 98% of Catholic women use contraception

Nearly all of the media commentary relied on a White House factsheet written by Celia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Both columnist Nicholas Kristof, of the New York Times, and the well-known gay writer Andrew Sullivan, of Newsweek, for example, used her statistics. Like many others, they employed them to imply that Archbishop Dolan is at the tiller of a ship with a skeleton crew and no passengers.

Let’s examine this factoid. The White House acknowledges that the source was an April 2011 report from the Guttmacher Institute, a research institute originally founded by Planned Parenthood (they are no longer formally linked) and financed by the likes of the United Nations Population Fund, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation. It’s not a fly-by-night outfit, but it is clearly biased. Based on its figures, the White House factsheet states: “most women, including 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraception”.

That’s a big call. Does it stack up?

Not at all. The Guttmacher study, “Countering Conventional Wisdom: New Evidence on Religion and Contraceptive Use”, is a confusing and poorly drafted piece of work. At one point it says that only 2% of Catholic women use natural family planning; at another it says 3%. In the appendix it says that current contraceptive was measured in the last three months, but it also refers to lifetime use. A partner using a condom once places her in the 98%. A woman who used contraceptives before becoming a Catholic places her in the 98%. 

“Among all women who have had sex, 99% have ever used a contraceptive method other than natural family planning. This figure is virtually the same, 98%, among sexually experienced Catholic women.”

There’s no denying that many women who call themselves Catholic disagree with the Church on the issue of contraception. But 98 percent! That’s not a skeleton crew; it’s the Marie Celeste

Let’s take a closer look. The survey did not interview all women. It was restricted to women who are (a) between 15 and 44, (b) sexually active, (c) not pregnant or post-partum and (d) seeking to avoid becoming pregnant.

(a) between 15 and 44. The White House and the Guttmacher Institute both assert that 98% of “Catholic women” “have used” contraception. But the data are restricted to the subset of women aged between 15 and 44. It tells us nothing about the views of women between 45 and 100. Is the White House implying that they do not count?

(b) sexually active. Why aren’t women who are not sexually active included? Presumably a proportion of Catholic women are single by choice and are observing the Church’s teaching. Don’t they count?

(c) not pregnant or post-partum. According to the report, “14% of married women are pregnant, postpartum or trying to get pregnant”. We aren’t informed what proportion of women are married, but it probably shaves a few percentage points off the 98%.

(d) seeking to avoid becoming pregnant. This is where the survey figures disappear beyond the looking-glass. It was restricted to sexually-active women, married and unmarried, who were seeking to avoid becoming pregnant. Thus all unmarried Catholic women who were not sexually active (there must be some of them) and all married Catholic women who wanted to become pregnant (ditto) were excluded.

This is called loading the dice. Any way you roll them, the percentage of women who want to use contraception and who subsequently do use contraception is going to approach 100%.

Which brings us to the biggest blunder in the report: how did it cook up the 98% figure? With such dexterity at manipulating the figures, surely the Guttmacher statisticians could have made it 99.99%?

The key graph is Figure 3 in the report. It shows “sexually active women of all denominations who do not want to become pregnant”. But this graph clearly, unambiguously, shows that 11% of Catholic women are using no method of contraception at all. So the proportion who are using contraception cannot possibly be higher than 89%.

So where did the 98% come from?

Simple. Of all the women in the survey, only 2% of Catholic women used natural family planning, a method which is acceptable to their church. To get the 98% figure, the Guttmacher Institute subtracted that 2% from 100%. (Of course, it could have used the 3% figure, too, but 98% sounds worse than 97%.)

At the end of the day, the 98% figure cited everywhere by the White House and the media was plucked from thin air. It is a lie.

There is no doubt that many, if not most, Catholics do not understand the position of the Catholic Church on contraception. But educating the faithful is the bishops’ business. 

Educating the electorate is Obama’s business. And if the only way he can persuade voters is by regurgitating skewed statistics from the research arm of the abortion industry, you have to question both his competence and his credibility.  

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

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