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Lies, damned lies and 98 percent of Catholic women

I've mentioned before that I once had to get a special dispensation to work at a newspaper because my degree was not in journalism but, rather, in economics. Have you ever been in a newsroom with a bunch of journalism grads who don't know how to calculate anything meaningful about, say, the most recently released budget document because, well, their degrees are in journalism? I have. It's not pretty. If you think some reporters have trouble getting religion, let me assure you that many reporters also have trouble getting statistics. A perfect example of how those two things collide is the incessantly repeated statistic we've been subjected to this week. Here's NPR from last week:

But not all Catholics share that view when it comes to birth control. In fact, 98 percent of Catholic women use birth control at some point in their lifetimes.

Here's The Atlantic, just throwing a bunch of numbers up:

It's surely a fact that the Catholic Church's higher-ups don't want to hear, but it's one that the White House has heralded in his defense of the new (and today, amended) requirement for Catholic employers to offer insurance that covers contraceptives. "According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, most women, including 98 percent of Catholic women, have used contraception," the White House's blog wrote last week. They were referring to an April 2011 report from the organization that describes its mission as to "advance sexual and reproductive health and rights." The 98 percent was among all Catholic women who have had sex and did not include "natural family planning," i.e. the only officiallly Church-sanctioned method of preventing pregnancies. That number is nearly indistiguishable from the reported 99 percent of all American women who say they have used contraception. These are the key bits from Guttmacher Institute's "Countering Conventional Wisdom: New Evidence on Religion and Contraceptive Use"

The typos might suggest something about the accuracy of the general argument. It's fine, I suppose, to use White House talking points in a story or to cite the abortion rights supporting Guttmacher Institute without noting its relationship with Planned Parenthood. But in this case, Guttmacher erred in what it claimed were the results of its own study.

Guttmacher did say in its summary that "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."

But that's not in any way an accurate statement of what its own survey found.

On the very same page, it explains that its survey was restricted to women aged 15-44, so that cuts out all women who were older than 44 at the time of the survey. And a footnote explains that a rather significant chunk of women were excluded from this figure of "all women" -- namely, women who are pregnant, post-partum or trying to get pregnant." A later footnote says that the only women who had sex in the last three months were included in this group. Finally, included in this 98 percent figure of current contraceptive users are the 11 percent who report no method.

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.

NPR ran a story yesterday morning that a few of you submitted. Reporter Allison Keyes told listeners that she couldn't find a single Catholic who supports the bishops (although she did find the false stat!):

KEYES: No one who agreed to talk took the bishop's side. Like Burger, those who did talk think people are selectively following the bishop's rules. She quotes recent studies which say that 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraceptives.

BURGER: The edicts are not being followed and I think the public is doing what it will.

KEYES: Berber says she doesn't like the way the church injects itself into political debates.

Keyes only went to the 10 a.m. mass at Shrine of the Sacred Heart church in northwest Washington. She only found people who oppose the bishops. Do you think she would have had a similar result if she'd gone to a parish outside of DC? What if she'd gone to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception? (On this note, I rather like this Friday NPR story from Morning Edition that found a Catholic student who opposes the bishops. Except she isn't Catholic. She's actually a Unitarian Universalist.)

Here's how host Steve Inskeep wraps it up:

INSKEEP: So, it wasn't hard to find Catholics -- at least at that one church -- who differ with the bishops. The bishops, as a group, say they are still concerned despite the wider exception for religious employers, which allows health insurance companies who favor contraception directly. The bishops say they're still studying the details of the Obama administration mandate, which they say may still affect some people who object to contraception. The bishops call that, quote, "unacceptable, raising serious moral concerns."

It's NPR News.

Yes, it is NPR News, isn't it. Of course, if you're going to frame your story completely from the side of "everyone I talked to wants the government to mandate 'free' birth control coverage," you miss out on any meaningful discussion of religious liberty, much less any of the other opposition to HHS mandates. It also treats a story that affects a wide swath of religious adherents as a "Catholic" story. That may be a line advanced by some of the loudest players in the fight, but is it accurate?

Image of woman excluded from Guttmacher survey via Shutterstock.

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