What’s in more than 99%?

Contrary to what it may seem from the title, I am not going to enter the OWS fray here. Nor am I going to offer a rant on income inequality or corporate profits. There are plenty of people in the twitterverse and blogosphere to give you that. Rather, I am going to toss my hat in the ring of the birth control debate. But again, I’m not really interested in joining the name-calling that has dominated much of this debate. This debate has been so full of vitriol and terrible words and I have no intention of adding to it. I won’t link to them; I won’t even say their names. I am curious, however, about some of the statistics they’ve been using.

When this debate was–for that short period–primarily about Catholics, many news outlets were quoting that 98% of all Catholic women had used contraception in at some point. It rang a little false for me, but the underscoring point seemed consistent with my experience growing up Catholic. American Catholics, as I knew them, were fairly progressive and dedicated to social justice, easing burdens on the poor, and bringing healthy, wanted babies into the world.

You can call me naive or blind, but this is what I knew and saw in my suburban Denver church and even in my mother’s very Irish family back in Ohio.

When the debate shifted to the Blunt amendment and moral exemptions, people started quoting a new statistic that more than 99% of all women, not just Catholics, had used contraception at some point.

This just seemed too high. And the more I thought about it, the more unlikely the Catholic stat seemed as well. So, I went looking, and asked for help on twitter, and eventually came across this Guttmacher report summarizing a Vital Health Statistics paper on contraception use in America.

It’s a fascinating read, you know, if you’re interested in that stuff, and does appear to be the source for the >99% stat. Only, it doesn’t really say what I think many have suggested it does. Methods of contraception include vasectomy, withdrawal, and natural family planning, among others. While these are all clearly ways of attempting to control one’s fertility–which is partially how the debate has been and I think should be framed–they are not that closely related to birth control pills or IUDs or even condom use, as I think the >99% statistic suggests.

It’s important to say that more than 99% of all women who have ever had sex made some sort of conscious effort to control their fertility. But I think it’s disingenuous to suggest, using the same statistic, that all those women sought medical care to do the same. The point is that women should be given the information and tools to make their own decisions regarding their fertility and their bodies. Those decisions are between a woman and her doctor, and hopefully to some extent her partner.

And while it is true that more than 99% of women in America aged 15-44 who have had sex have used a form of contraception, they’re not all using the kind we’re debating about: hormonal or non-hormonal forms that require a doctor’s prescription. How we define and present numbers is important to the credibility of a cause.

**Update: Because @randomsubu asked (and was responsible for helping me find the Guttmacher report), I dug a little deeper into the original Vital Health Statistics report. In fact, 82.3% of women interviewed aged 15-44 who had ever had sex had used the Pill at some point in their lives. 93% had used condoms, more than 22% had tried Depo shots, 10% had tried the patch, and only 7.4% had an IUD (down from 18.4% 30 years ago–which is pretty interesting in and of itself).

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6 thoughts on “What’s in more than 99%?

  1. Indeed numbers matter; but perhaps the larger point is not wrong. What’s the fraction that actually use the types of birth control we are talking about? I estimated 2/3-rds, which is not insignificant. In other words, as you knock down one number, perhaps we need to see what you think is appropriate.

    • Absolutely. I think the larger point is really important. More than 99% of women have made efforts to control their fertility. They’re exercising their rights to control their bodies. It’s an important statistic. It just doesn’t mean that more than 99% of women are using birth control pills, when it’s really closer to a 1/3 of women. If I add the numbers in the guttmacher study, I see 56.5% using semi- and non-permanent medically-aided contraception and 83.6% if you include female tubal sterilization. Still really high. And still really important. Just different. I just think it’s important to be precise. When you make statements intended to deceive, they can come back to bite you.

  2. Pingback: I’m annoyed again about the ’99% use birth control’ statistics | Irrational Tonics

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