A new study from the Guttmacher Institute confirms what many women already know to be true: despite church prohibitions on birth control, contraceptive use and strong religiosity are compatible for most Americans. The statistics are striking: among all women who have had sex, 99% have ever used a contraceptive method other than natural family planning. “This figure,” the report says, “is virtually the same among Catholic women (98%).”
This is despite the fact that Catholic leaders condemn all forms of pregnancy prevention except for “natural family planning” (i.e., the rhythm method). And 68% of Catholic women use a “highly effective” method of contraception (the pill, an IUD, sterilization), while only 2% rely exclusively on natural family planning. Interestingly, too, four in ten evangelical Christians rely on either male or sterilization, a number that is higher than in other religious denominations.
This is not to say that Americans are suddenly becoming less religiously devout – a vast majority of the women surveyed attended church at least once a month, and although evangelical Christians were slightly less likely to have sex before marriage, most unmarried women over the age of 20 had had some form of sexual experience.
So what does this mean? The Guttmacher Institute is clear about the policy implications that they think should follow. “Most sexually active women who do not want to become pregnant practice contraception, and most use highly effective methods like sterilization, the pill, or the IUD,” explained Rachel K. Jones, the study’s lead author. “This is true for Evangelicals and Mainline Protestants, and it is true for Catholics, despite the Catholic hierarchy’s strenuous opposition to contraception.”
The pope has, in a rather confusing manner, loosened the Catholic Church’s stance on condoms in the past few months, saying that while condom use is still not moral, it is a lesser evil than passing on a sexually transmitted disease like HIV/AIDS. But this doesn’t mean that the church supports contraceptive use, even among married couples, despite the fact that this seems to be what most Catholic women, married or single, are doing.
“Sound public policy making should recognize this and support women by making contraceptives easier and more affordable to use,” said Adam Sonfield, a Guttmacher policy analyst. “Health policy should not serve as a proxy for religious dogma.”
This study is valuable because it shows that religious women, despite the church’s stance on contraceptives, overwhelmingly use birth control – and that many use “highly effective” forms like the pill or an IUD. This is yet another piece of evidence for accessible, affordable contraception – which, ironically, is just what the Republicans in Congress have tried so vehemently to strip away.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.