How the White House’s 98% Contraception Figure for Catholics is Wrong

Lydia McGrew has done an excellent service by tracking down and reading the study behind the Obama administration’s “98% of Catholic women use contraception” myth.

She points out that the Guttmacher study that myth is based on says no such thing.

The  organization Politifact has made the myth worse by reading the study and trying to give the administration cover. Politifact takes out of context a line about Catholics who have ever used contraception. But that’s not supported by the study’s research.

Here is the key graph in the study the administration was talking about:

First, this survey suffers from what  I call the “Nonsmokers smoke Marlboros” problem. At the top of a survey, ask: “Are you a smoker or a nonsmoker?” and lots of people who smoke will self-identify as “nonsmokers.” Later, ask, “What brand of cigarettes do you smoke?” and they will say, “Definitely Marlboro Lights!” Ergo, nonsmokers smoke Marlboros.

The results are even more skewed if you ask people at the top of a survey what religion they are. People who have never darkened the door of a Catholic Church will happily mark “Catholic” on such a survey. The behavior they report will count for or against Catholics the same regardless of their actual contact with Catholicism.

This particular survey even admits that less than a third of its “Catholic” respondents even go to Mass once a week.

So, what do we know from the start: We aren’t dealing with practicing Catholics. In fact, a two-thirds majority of the Catholics in the survey are not eligible to receive communion, according to the U.S. bishops (see page 9), since they skip their Sunday obligation.

McGrew directs us to more problems, in the asterisk at the bottom. There we learn that the survey is: “Restricted to sexually active women who are not pregnant, post-partum, or trying to get pregnant.”

So think of who would be included and excluded from this study:

  • Included: Unmarried teens and young women who sleep with their boyfriends.
  • Excluded: Unmarried teens and young women who follow the Church’s teaching on chastity.
  • Included: Married women who are actively avoiding pregnancy.
  • Excluded: Married women who are not particularly watching whether they get pregnant or not.
  • Included: Promiscuous party girls.
  • Excluded: Nuns.

No wonder so many of them are using contraception! But the funny thing is, even once you include mostly lapsed Catholics and eliminate anyone who might mess up your number, it still isn’t true to say 98% are using contraception.

They got that by subtracting the 2% of NFP users in their chart from the 100% of respondents. But look at the chart. It says 11% are using “no method.” By my math, it should be at least 13% not using contraception.

Update: I have been in touch with Politifact (thanks especially to an attentive reader), and Politifact has been in touch with Guttmacher. They promise to send research that is not included in the original report which supports the assertion that “98% [of] sexually experienced Catholic women” “have ever used a contraceptive method other than natural family planning.” The public has not seen this research. There are lots of questions to be answered, and I want to see the research, including who is included and excluded, and not just a dressed up version of the original assertion.

And the most shocking news remains that the White House is spreading unsubstantiated information about Catholicism in order to provide cover as it removes religious liberties for Catholic organizations.

White House: Retract this statement and correct the record. Stop misinforming the public about my religion for your purposes.

Update 2: Lydia McGrew has an update on the situation … and the White House deserves some credit if this was an intentional backing away from the claim.

Update 3: After Nancy Pelosi and others continue to say “98% of Catholic women use birth control,” the Washington Post debunks the number.

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Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., where he teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communications department and edits the college’s Catholic identity speech digest, The Gregorian.

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81 thoughts on “How the White House’s 98% Contraception Figure for Catholics is Wrong

  1. MCM says:

    I disliked this article, but for reasons apart from the statistics. Fine – the statistics are wrong. Hats to you. However, Tom, I have a few questions:
    My first question to you is this: What makes, as you say, a “practicing Catholic”? Someone who goes to mass every Sunday? Someone who doesn’t ever use contraception? Someone who was baptized and grew up in a Catholic family? Someone who does not fight in an unjust war? Someone who walks as Jesus did and renounces all possessions to give and be in communion with the poor? Take a look at Pacem in Terris, Gaudium et Spes, and Populorum Progressio and see what things are also required of a “practicing Catholic.”
    Secondly. You point out that some of those untouchables, i.e. those Catholics who use contraception or skip mass, aren’t even “eligible” for communion. Well that’s fine and dandy if the Bishop said it – but think for a moment! Doesn’t that sound absurd? -”a two-thirds majority of the Catholics in the survey are not ELIGIBLE to receive COMMUNION.” Tom, you seem to be a proud Catholic, so I am sure you would agree that communion is not a business transaction, and that you shouldn’t be ineligible for communion as you can be for a loan. To say that some one is ineligible is denying them a chance to be in communion with Christ!! Saying that there are people undeserving of the body of Christ is one of the least Catholic things you can say. Christ loves all of us, even those, who in your eyes Tom, are “ineligible”.

    1. Tom Hoopes says:

      We will all be held accountable for our Catholic faith in its totality in the end … My point is that when our government tries to characterize Catholic behavior, we need to clarify what they mean…. … As to who is eligible to receive communion, that’s not for you or me to decide. The Church decided that early on … see 1 Corinthians 11: 27-31. …. Pope John Paul II dramatically reaffirmed it in 2003: “I therefore desire to reaffirm that in the Church there remains in force, now and in the future, the rule by which the Council of Trent gave concrete expression to the Apostle Paul’s stern warning when it affirmed that, in order to receive the Eucharist in a worthy manner, ‘one must first confess one’s sins, when one is aware of mortal sin’.” ……… The U.S. bishops followed with their own strong warning in 2006 which I linked above: http://old.usccb.org/doctrine/Eucharist.pdf
      ………. These aren’t arbitrary rules or exclusionary edicts. We don’t offend each other and expect our relationship to go on without any reconciliation. Jesus wants to reconcile himself with us, too, to be in true communion with us in the Eucharist.

  2. [...] which are skewed in the first place. They’re skewing this statistic as they have with others recently. I’d be interested to go back and poll those same 1,000 people and see what [...]

  3. g-dog says:

    Hi Tom,

    You misrepresented the source article: it does not claim something that catholic women “use”, but something that catholic women “have used.” There’s a big difference. Therefore, the 98% figure is very conceivable (when evaluating the correct population), being that many of these have subsequently aligned their practice with the Church’s teaching on the matter or are simply no longer sexually-active. George

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