During the recent debate over the Obama administration's birth control mandate, White House officials and many reporters have repeatedly said that 98 percent of all Catholic women have used birth control at some time in their life. This claim is being disputed.
The statistics come from an April 2011 study on women and contraceptive use published by the Guttmacher Institute. Reporter Mollie Hemingway stated bluntly on GetReligion.org, "Guttmacher erred in what it claimed were the results of its own study."
The study used a survey of 7,356 females aged 15 to 44 conducted between June 2006 and December 2008 by the National Center for Health Statistics. The sample did not include Catholic women older than 44.
A summary of the report states, "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."
A chart on page six of the report shows, however, this is not true. The chart shows that, in the sample, 11 percent reported using no birth control and two percent reported using "natural family planning."
But the sample itself is narrower than even Catholic females aged 15 to 44. A footnote under the chart states, "restricted to sexually active women who are not pregnant, post-partum or trying to get pregnant." (The study defines "sexually active" as those who reported having sex in the previous three months.)
In sum, the study finds that 87 percent of Catholic females between the ages of 15 and 44 who are having sex, not pregnant, not recently pregnant and trying to not get pregnant have used some form of birth control – a statistic far removed from saying that 98 percent of all Catholic women have used birth control.
Hemingway summarized it this way in a post for GetReligion.org: "It's worth pondering just who is left out of this 87 percent, other than, you know, everyone who doesn't use contraception. Great stat, team journalist! I mean, the study was designed to find only women who would be most likely to use contraception. And it did."
GetReligion.org is a blog devoted to improving how religion is reported in the news.
Hemingway pointed out that Politifact.com, whose purpose is to uncover false information, reports that the 98 percent figure is "mostly true."
The statistic had been cited by Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, in a Feb. 1 blog post on the White House website where she wrote, "According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, most women, including 98 percent of Catholic women, have used contraception."
The press, including NPR, have followed suit. Besides failing to double-check the statistic cited by the Obama administration, Hemingway noted some other failures in how the press reported the information.
Most news reports have not cited where the information came from. Hemingway had to do some digging to discover that it came from the Guttmacher Institute. Moreover, reports have not informed their consumers that the source, Guttmacher Institute, is an advocacy organization for legalized abortion.
Clarification: The Christian Post has been contacted by Guttmacher Institute regarding how its report is being used to describe birth control use among Catholic women. There is a distinction in the report between "sexually experienced" women and "sexually active" women that The Christian Post failed to clarify. The report says that 98 percent of "sexually experienced" Catholic women have used birth control at some point in their lives and 87 percent of "sexually active" Catholic women who are not pregnant, post-partum or trying to get pregnant are currently using some form of birth control. As originally reported, the sample only includes women aged 15-44. Also, the data does report whether the women who reported having used birth control at some point in their lives were Catholic at the time they were using it.