Fact-checker gives Catholic birth control stat 'two pinocchios'

By Michelle Bauman

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Credit: Flickr, brains the head.

A Washington Post fact-checking writer says the claim that 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraception is misleading and creates a false impression.

Award-winning journalist Glenn Kessler criticized “the media’s sloppy shorthand for this statistic.”

As heated debate over the controversial federal contraception mandate continues, the argument that “98 percent of American Catholic women have used contraception in their lifetimes” has been widely circulated.  

The figure has been cited by supporters of the mandate – including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) – as well as media outlets including the New York Times, National Public Radio and the Washington Post.

However, according to Kessler, “the media has gotten it wrong.”

Kessler analyzed the figure and found it “incorrect” in his regular “Fact Checker” column in the Washington Post on Feb. 17.

He gave the media’s claim a score of “Two Pinocchios” out of four, meaning that it contained “significant omissions and/or exaggerations.”

The score indicates that a “false, misleading impression” has been created by playing with words and using language that is not well known by ordinary people.

Kessler explained that the figure first appeared in a 2011 study from the Guttmacher Institute, an organization dedicated to promoting “reproductive health” that originally started as a branch of Planned Parenthood.

The study claimed to find that 98 percent of “sexually experienced Catholic women” have “ever used a contraceptive method other than natural planning.”

However, Kessler said, “the data shown in the report does not actually back up that claim.”

He observed that a table included in the report “even appears to undermine that statistic,” showing that 11 percent of Catholic women currently use no method of contraception at all.

Kessler also noted the difference between the social science terms “sexually experienced,” which means that an individual has had sex at least once, and “sexually active,” which means that an individual has had sex recently.

He explained that the data in the Guttmacher report referred only to current use of contraceptives by “sexually active women” between the ages of 15 and 44 “who are not pregnant, post-partum or trying to get pregnant.”

“That is a smaller universe of women,” he observed, adding that the data reveals that only 68 percent of Catholic women used what are considered “highly effective methods,” which consist of sterilization, the pill and IUDs. 

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