The Church and Contraception

Recent research, released in February by Catholics for Choice and in April by the Guttmacher Institute, shows what everybody already knows to be true: Catholics use methods of contraception that are banned by the church hierarchy.

The findings, from the latest figures released by the National Survey of Family Growth, show that sexually active Catholic women older than 18 are just as likely (98 percent) to have used some form of contraception banned by the Vatican as women in the general population (99 percent). Among sexually active Hispanic Catholic women, 96 percent have used a contraceptive method banned by the Vatican.

An incoherent response from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) reveals much about the hierarchy's attitude towards family planning. In her attempt to attack the research, Deirdre McQuade, assistant director for policy and communications at the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, showed that the bishops simply do not know how to deal with the fact that almost every single sexually active Catholic woman in the United States currently ignores, or has done at some stage, the dictates on family planning set by the Vatican.

"The way the data is presented ... is misleading in a pretty fundamental way," McQuade said. A serious charge, admittedly, especially for organizations that pride themselves on even-handed research and rigorous fact-checking. But her follow-up assertion -- that the manner in which the question was posed would not take into account women who had used methods banned by the Vatican but "who then came to understand the church's teachings on sexuality and stopped using them" -- warrants further exploration. On the face of it, she's right -- such women would be included in the numbers. Is there a massive cohort of women who had used such methods and come around to the bishops' way of thinking? Do we have data on them? Happily, we do. The research also showed that "fewer than two percent of sexually active Catholic women use Vatican-approved methods as their primary form of family planning."

It looks like the number of women who once used a method and came around to the bishops' view of the world is pretty small -- close to zero, in fact.

The issue would be laughable if it were not for the fact that the bishops spared no expense in their recent attempts to influence legislation that would defund both Title X and Planned Parenthood. McQuade referenced these activities, asserting that "We are not alone as Catholics in objecting to taxpayer funding of contraceptives ... " She is also correct about this -- the bishops joined the entire Republican leadership is opposing this funding, along with just about every far-right, ultraconservative, antiwoman advocacy organization in the United States. Is this the company Catholics want their spiritual leaders to keep?

The fact is, both Title X and Planned Parenthood provide a lifeline for millions of poor people -- the very people that the bishops' social justice agenda is supposed to include. Their thankfully unsuccessful attempt to cut off those funds would have been a slap in the face for all of those poor people -- and would have come with the heft of the USCCB's lobby behind it. Shame on them.

Natural family planning is a good choice for some people. As McQuade notes, for couples who are "very faithful in following the rules" it has a failure rate of between one and three percent. That's great for people who are willing to abstain for longish periods every month and who never, ever, get carried away. What's a guy or a gal to do? The research is clear. Most Catholics -- the vast majority in fact -- take the task of protecting themselves from unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections seriously. And in preventing them, they have made decisions in good conscience to ignore the exhortations of the bishops. That's not news to most people in the world. But maybe the bishops and their spokespeople need to get out a bit more.

Jon O'Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice