A report released by the Guttmacher Institute yesterday shows that while religious affiliation may play some role in decisions regarding sexual behavior, it has little to do with whether women (married and unmarried) use contraception. Specifically,the study found that regardless of religious affiliation at least three-quarters of never-married women are sexually experienced by their early twenties and that the overwhelming majority of sexually active women of all denominations who do not wish to become pregnant are using a contraceptive method.
Researchers analyzed data from the 2006–2008 National Survey for Family Growth which asks questions about religious affiliation in addition to its questions about sexual activity and contraceptive use. They focused specifically on women who identified as Catholic, Mainline Protestant (which includes Methodists, Presbyterians, and other groups), and Evangelicals (which includes Protestant women who indicated that they were “born-again Christian,” “charismatic,” “evangelical,” or “fundamentalist”).
Though the majority of women (79 percent) regardless of religion are sexually active by their 20s, when it comes to sexual behavior the study pointed to some differences that were based on religion. For example:
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- Among never-married young adult women 20–24, Evangelicals (75 percent) are less likely than Catholics (89 percent) or Mainline Protestants (86 percent) to have ever had sex.
- Among all women of reproductive age (15–44) who have never had sex, Evangelicals (63 percent) are more likely than Catholics (31 percent) and Mainline Protestants (36 percent) to cite religious or moral reasons as their main motivation for remaining abstinent.
- Never-married women with a religious affiliation who indicate that religion is very important in their daily lives are less likely to be sexually experienced (48 percent) than are those who indicate that religion is less important (74–80 percent).
This may not come as a surprise given the role that Evangelical leaders have played in the abstinence-only-until-marriage movement. While there is no unified body that speaks for all Evangelical churches in the United States, the study’s authors note that “most Evangelical leaders strongly oppose sexual activity—and contraceptive use—among unmarried women of all ages.”
What may come as a surprise is that religious affiliation has little impact on the contraceptive choices that women (both married and unmarried) make. The study found:
- Among all women who have had sex, 99 percent have ever used a contraceptive method other than natural family planning. This figure is virtually the same, 98 percent, among sexually experienced Catholic women.
- Only 2 percent of Catholic women rely on natural family planning while 68 percent use highly effective methods: sterilization (32 percent), the pill or other hormonal method (31 percent), and the IUD (5 percent).
- Attendance at religious services and importance of religion in daily life are largely unrelated to use of highly effective contraceptive methods.
According to the authors, “This research suggests that the perception that strongly held religious beliefs and contraceptive use are antithetical is wrong—in fact, the two may be highly compatible.” In truth, it seems that most religious institutions have known this for years. According to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), “family planning is embraced by religions across the spectrum as a moral good, a responsible choice, and a basic human right.” RCRC points to statements supporting the use of contraception from the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Presbyterian Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, Unitarian Universalists, and the United Church of Christ, among others. Some of these institutions have supported contraceptive use for many decades. The Episcopal Church first approved the use of contraception for family planning in the 1930s and leaders in Reform Judaism noted in 1929 that birth control contributes to social stability. In fact, according to RCRC, the Catholic Church is the only major faith institution in the United States to forbid the use of contraception.
While most of us, regardless of our own religions, are aware of the fact that the Catholic Church is opposed to the use of all contraceptive methods other than natural family planning, many of us might not realize the lengths the church has gone to undermine the use of modern contraceptive methods in this country. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has opposed publicly funded family planning programs for many years and in the ongoing debate over health care reform the USCCB has lead the charge against the designation of contraception as preventive health services. (Such a designation would lead to the requirement that contraception be covered in all health insurance plans without cost-sharing.) The USCCB has also sought exemptions that would allow institutions (such as insurance plans or hospital networks) run by religious organizations to refuse to provide contraceptive services and supplies.
This new data showing that Catholic women use modern contraceptive methods in much the same numbers as their Protestant and Evangelical counterparts is unlikely to change the Vatican’s mind or the positions of the USCCB. Still, policymakers should take note. Rachel K. Jones, one of the authors of the new Guttmacher study, explains: “The majority of women across religious denominations are using highly effective methods of contraception. Any restrictions that we place around access to these methods are going to affect women of all faiths.” Reverend Debra W. Haffner, executive director of the Religious Institute, echoes this: “The vast majority of all American women, including women of faith, use and support contraception. One hopes that this would be a powerful message to federal and state policymakers that subsidies for family planning methods are essential and that the United States must renew its commitment to family planning efforts around the world.”