Thursday, December 18th, 2014

Keeping facts straight on 98% of Catholic women

Health plans must soon cover birth control without a co-pay, but religious organizations won't pay.
Health plans must soon cover birth control without a co-pay, but religious organizations won't pay.

For the past week, thoughtful readers have let us know that we were wrong to give a Mostly True to the claim from a White House official that "most women, including 98 percent of Catholic women, have used contraception."

They said we overlooked a chart in a study from the Guttmacher Institute that showed the percentage was far more limited. But there’s a good reason we didn’t rely on the chart — it wasn’t the right one.

To double-check, we reviewed the criticism, talked with the study’s lead researcher, and reviewed the report and an update from the institute. We’re confident in our original analysis.

The spate of blog posts and stories this week — some directly claiming to debunk our reporting — unfortunately rely on a flawed reading of a Guttmacher Institute study.

They were easy mistakes to make, confusing the group of women who have "ever used" contraceptives with those who are "currently using" contraceptives — and misapplying footnote information about those "currently using" to the 98 percent statistic.

The critics of our reporting — bloggers for the Weekly Standard, CatholicVote.org and GetReligion.org — were relying on an analysis from Lydia McGrew in her blog, "What's Wrong With The World," which was also cited by the Washington Post's WonkBlog.

(The GetReligion.org piece was in turn cited in a story critical of the statistic by the Christian Post.)

McGrew holds a doctorate in English from Vanderbilt and co-authored the book Internalism and Epistemology: The Architecture of Reason, with her husband, Tim, chairman of the philosophy department at Western Michigan University.

She says in her bio that "blogging in defense of conservative and unfashionable political positions is one of her hobbies."

In this case, she read the Guttmacher study that’s the source of the "98 percent of Catholic women" statistic.

The study doesn’t provide much explanation of the statistic, including it in the text on Page 4, but not displaying the related data in any charts. It says: "Among all women who have had sex, 99 percent have ever used a contraceptive method other than natural family planning. This figure is virtually the same, 98 percent, among sexually experienced Catholic women."

We noted in our fact-check of White House official Cecilia Muñoz that it’s not fully true to say "98 percent of Catholic women have used contraception," because that’s actually the percentage of women ages 15 to 44 who have had sex. That's why we rated it Mostly True.

McGrew and others found far more exclusions in the Guttmacher study — but they weren’t the right ones. They focused on a chart in Figure 3 on Page 6 that was about a different group of women. Instead of being about "women who have had sex," it was about "sexually active women who are not pregnant, post-partum or trying to get pregnant."

They noted that in Figure 3, 11 percent of those sexually active women were using "no method" of contraception, arguing that also contradicted Muñoz's claim and our rating.

Except that’s not the group the 98 percent statistic was based on.

The Guttmacher Institute jumped into the discussion Wednesday with a clarification that indicated that, indeed, its study showed that 98 percent of Catholic women ages 15 to 44 who have had sex have used contraceptives:

"Guttmacher’s analysis of data from the federal government’s National Survey of Family Growth found that the vast majority of American women of reproductive age (15–44) — including 99% of all sexually experienced women and 98% of those who identify themselves as Catholic — have used a method of contraception other than natural family planning at some point. Women may be classified as sexually experienced regardless of whether they are currently sexually active, using contraceptives, pregnant, trying to get pregnant or postpartum.

"By their early 20s, some 79% of never-married women — and 89% of never-married Catholic women — have had sex. (Presumably, all married women have done so.) In short, most American women (including Catholics) have had sex by their early 20s, and virtually all of them have used contraceptives other than natural family planning.

"The above statistics on women who have ever used contraceptives are not to be confused with data on women who are currently using contraceptives."


Today, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker offered an accurate dissection of the stats, though he weighed some qualifications more heavily than we did.

We’ve been in touch with McGrew and a few others since the Guttmacher update. The Christian Post published a clarification. McGrew said she planned to write a new post.