WashPost Awards Two 'Pinocchios' to Media for Inaccurate '98 Percent of Catholic Women Use Contraceptives' Claim

In Sunday's Washington Post, their "Fact Checker" Glenn Kessler caught up with some social conservative bloggers (like Mollie Hemingway at Get Religion) and assigned "two Pinocchios" to the media -- for regurgitating a bad statistic, namely that "98 percent of Catholic women use contraception." Set aside that the source, the Guttmacher Institute, has an intimate relationship with the liberal feminists at Planned Parenthood.

"If a statistic sounds too good to be true, be wary," wrote Kessler. "A spokesman for [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi said she was saying that 98 percent of Catholic women have used birth control at some point in their lives — because that is how the media characterized it." And they did it over and over and over again, thumping on the idea that Catholic bishops were hopelessly out of touch with their flock. It turns out the media were out of touch with statistics.

Kessler continued that "judging from the examples above, the media has gotten it wrong. The journalistic shorthand has been that '98 percent of American Catholic women have used contraception in their lifetimes.'  But that is incorrect, according to the research."

But while the study says that 98 percent of “sexually experienced Catholic women” have “ever used a contraceptive method other than natural planning,” the data shown in the report does not actually back up that claim. In fact, a supplementary table in the report, on page 8, even appears to undermine that statistic, since it shows that 11 percent of Catholic women currently using no method at all. That has led to criticism of the statistic.

The Guttmacher Institute, citing “confusion” over the statistic, on Wednesday posted the actual data behind it. It turns out it was based on a question that asked self-identified Catholic women who have had sex if they have ever used one of 12 methods of birth control. [Guttmacher co-author Rachel] Jones, in an interview, said the women were asked to answer “yes” or “no” whether they had used each of the different forms; only two percent had said they had used only natural family planning.

In other words, a woman may have sex only once, or she may have had a partner who only used a condom once, and then she would be placed in the 98 percent category. Jones said the correct way to describe the results of the research is this:

 “Data shows that 98 percent of sexually experienced women of child-bearing age and who identify themselves as Catholic have used a method of contraception other than natural family planning at some point in their lives.”

But using an artificial contraceptive once might be a failing according to the church, but it doesn't equal a massive revolt from church teaching. It's certainly true that a majority of Catholic women aren't following church teaching on contraceptives, so why lunge at a liberal 'too good to be true" number like 98 percent?

Of course, a large number of American Catholics also fail to follow church teaching that they're obligated to attend Mass on Sundays (or Saturday night  vigils.) But pollsters never separate the practicing Catholics from the inactive ones. It shouldn't be surprising that inactive Catholics wouldn't be in perfect harmony with the church. But in a democracy, do we give the same weight to citizens who never vote? If not, why honor the "Catholic" opinion of unchurched people?

Kessler didn't hand "Pinnochios" to Guttmacher, even as he explained:

The data listed in the Guttmacher report, meanwhile, referred to current contraceptive use among “sexually active women who are not pregnant, post-partum or trying to get pregnant.” That is a smaller universe of women, and it shows that 68 percent of Catholic women used what are termed “highly effective methods:” 32 percent sterilization; 31 percent pill; five percent IUD.

Again, only two percent currently used natural family planning. Interestingly, 11 percent used nothing, even though they were not trying to get pregnant. Four percent were placed in an “other” category, which mainly consisted of “withdrawal,” which is also not accepted by the Catholic Church as a birth-control method.

Mollie Hemingway suggested the 98-percent claim was a garbage number, and should have been dumped like bad garbage.

So I guess we could say that among women aged 15-44 who had sex in the last three months but aren’t pregnant, post-partum or trying to get pregnant, 87 percent of women who identify as Catholic used contraception. 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.

So let that statistic die. Or accurately summarize it. (Hint: “Every woman who ever lived used 18 forms of birth control. For fun.” is not going to cut it.) Also, it’s shameful how many people just cited that stat without any reference to where it was found. You might remember I had to post a note asking for help tracking it down after I’d seen it repeated for the thousandth time. That’s not even OK for opinion pieces, much less news articles.

Mollie then demonstrated how liberal NPR typically slanted everything against the Catholic Church, so take some time to hop over there to Get Religion.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis