Do 98% of U.S. Catholic women use contraception?

Many sources in the mass media and in politics (including a Whitehouse official) have recently cited a Guttmacher Institute study (Religion and Contraceptive Use [PDF file], Jones and Dreweke, April 2011) to the conclusion, phrased in divergent ways by various sources, that: 98 percent of Catholic women use contraception.

However, the study itself does not make that exact assertion, and a closer look at its data, especially from a Catholic point of view, refutes the claim. The only place in the study where “98″ occurs is in this paragraph:

“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.” (p. 4)

This figure, 98%, refers only to women who have had sex (ever, at any time). It excludes Catholic women who have never married and who remain chaste in accord with Catholic teaching. Since the current trend in Western society is for women to marry later in life, rather than earlier, a significant number of Catholic women are excluded from this study. In addition, by including, among never-married women, only those who have violated Catholic teaching on sexual ethics by having sex, the study is biased in favor of those Catholics who reject Church teaching. In this way, the study makes it seem as if a higher percentage of Catholic women are violating Church teaching.

This point is explicitly stated in the study, but is not taken into account in the 98% figure:

“Never-married women of reproductive age who attend religious services every week are less likely to have ever had sex than are those who attend less frequently (48% vs. 74-80%), and this association applies to both adolescents and young adult women.

“Similarly, never-married women with a religious affiliation who indicate that religion is very important in their daily lives are less likely to be sexually experienced than are those who indicate religion is less important (59% vs. 74-80%), and this association applies to both adolescents and young adult women.” (p. 4)

The figure 98% also includes those who “have ever used a contraceptive method”, not only those who are currently using contraception. So if a woman is currently faithful to Catholic teaching, but at some time in the past, even if only once, fell into sin and had sexual relations, with contraception, she is included in the 98% figure. Therefore, that figure includes some women who are currently faithful to Catholic teaching on sex and contraception. Moreover, because the methods of contraception included in the 98% include male contraception methods (male sterilization, condom use, withdrawal), some of the women in the 98% figure have, in fact, not used contraception; rather, the men did.

According to Catholic teaching (Casti Connubii, n. 59), if the husband uses contraception, the wife might still morally continue to have sexual relations with him. However, the moral analysis of this situation is complex; in some cases, the spouse must refuse, and in other cases, the spouse may consent, even though the other spouse is sinning in this regard. But the point to understand regarding the Guttmacher study is that a significant portion of that 98% includes women who are not using contraception, but rather having sexual relations with a man who was sterilized or is using male contraception.

The Guttmacher study was based on data from a government study by the National Center for Health Statistics. That study looked only at Catholic women in the U.S., and the percentages reported were weighted. So if the study says “68% of Catholic women…” this does not necessarily represent 68% of Catholic respondents to the study. The weighting of results from this type of study is then based on the general population, on what percentage of the population is Catholic. The problem with this weighting is that women who rarely or never attend Mass, who are therefore not practicing Catholics, are included in the weighting, and therefore also in the “98% of Catholic women” claim.

In Figure 3, on the last page of the Guttmacher study, it is stated that 2% of Catholic women use NFP. But elsewhere the study states that 3% of Catholic women use NFP. The difference is probably attributable to the exclusion, in the data of Figure 3, of women who do not intend to get pregnant. Couples using NFP sometimes intend to achieve a pregnancy, sometimes intend to avoid pregnancy, and other times they intend to space out births. This latter intention does not fit into the contraceptive mentality behind the Guttmacher study.

In addition, both figures (2% and 3%) include women who are not practicing Catholics (who attend Mass rarely or not at all), and include women who are unmarried but sexually active. So the percentage of married practicing Catholics who use NFP is undoubtedly much higher.

That same data (Figure 3) states that 11% of sexually-active Catholic women use no method. Thus 13% — so far — have not used contraception in the last three months (which is the basis for most of the data in the study). The 98% instead include all women who have ever had sex. Then there are 15% of women whose contraceptive method is said to be a condom. Of course, this is male contraceptive use. So now the figure rises to 28% of Catholic women who are sexually active and not using contraception. The “Other” methods of contraception, at 4%, “mainly consists of withdrawal” (p. 8), which again is a male method. So we can increase the total by 4%, to 32% of Catholic women not using contraception.

Next, we come to the question of sterilization. Direct sterilization is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, according to the definitive teaching of the Magisterium. However, indirect sterilization can be moral, such as when a woman must have a hysterectomy to treat a grave medical disorder. The sterilization listed in the study does not distinguish between direct and indirect. But even if we assume that indirect sterilization is rare enough not to affect these numbers by much, we still have to consider two more possibilities.

First, the study states that sterilization includes male sterilization. So again, the woman in question is not using contraception. She may have objected to her husband’s sterilization. He might have been sterilized and then later repented of this sin. Even if the woman in question was sterilized, she may have regretted her sin and repented. So she would be in agreement with Catholic teaching, but the study makes it seem as if she does not agree.

Only 31% of sexually-active Catholic women use the contraceptive pill (p. 8) and another 5% use the IUD. But this number (36%) is still an exaggeration, since it includes women who are not practicing Catholics (who rarely or never attend Mass) and those who say that religion is not very important to them. It also excludes women who have not had sexual relations in the last 3 months because they are unmarried and are faithful to Catholic teaching. According to the study, 52% of “never-married women of reproductive age who attend religious services every week” have never had sex (p. 4; “48%” have ever had sex).

Since the figure 36% (Catholic women using contraception) includes non-practicing Catholics and excludes chaste unmarried women, the actual number of practicing Catholic women who violate Catholic teaching — which is usually the main point of citing the 98% figure — is much lower than 36%, and certainly lower than one third. As a result of the above considerations, the 98% figure is clearly a severe distortion.

Now let’s revisit the question: What percentage of Catholic women of reproductive age — practicing Catholics, not merely those who call themselves Catholic — currently use contraception? It is impossible to tell from the Guttmacher study. However, it might be possible to do a new analysis of the original 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth by the National Center for Health Statistics, and thereby arrive at an answer. What is clear at this point in time is that the 98% figure is a gross exaggeration.

See also: Mathematical Proof that Birth Control Fails over at Accepting Abundance

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic moral theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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