A Critical Look at a Guttmacher Study

by Michael J. New

The Guttmacher Institute recently released a study on religion and contraceptive use. This study analyzed data that was reported by the 2006–2008 National Survey of Family Growth. Like nearly every other Guttmacher report, this study attempts to normalize both premarital sex and contraceptive use. It shows that regardless of faith tradition, most women both use artificial contraception and engage in premarital sexual activity. In the end, the authors conclude with (surprise!) a call for more government funding for contraception.

To Guttmacher’s credit, this study is a bit more nuanced than other studies that analyze religion and sexual activity. Instead of simply comparing the behavior of people who adhere to various faiths, the Guttmacher study actually considers frequency of church attendance. Here they do find some differences. Never-married women who attend church services once a week are considerably less likely to have ever had sex than those who attend less frequently. Similarly, never-married women who report that religion is very important in their daily lives are less likely to have engaged in sexual activity.

However, the study could have been more nuanced. First, the authors analyze neither the contraceptive usage nor the sexual activity of women who attend church more than once a week. Furthermore, this study fails to draw a distinction between sexual activity and sexual intercourse. Previous research indicates that some women who state that they have engaged in sexual activity have never actually engaged in intercourse.

More importantly, even though many women use contraception and engage in premarital sexual activity, that does not necessarily mean the government should be funding contraception. Guttmacher’s own survey of sexually active women who were not using contraception found that only 12 percent said that they lacked access to contraceptives due to financial or other reasons. Furthermore, Guttmacher has yet to release a study analyzing actual data showing that increases in contraceptive spending reduces either abortion rates or the rate of unintended pregnancies.

Even more importantly, this study, like nearly every other Guttmacher study, assumes a sexually permissive culture as a given. Guttmacher researchers never seem to give much thought as to how the availability of contraception has coarsened the culture and led to more sexual activity. Furthermore, Guttmacher never seems to seriously consider any of the numerous drawbacks associated with a more sexualized culture.

Michael New is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at The University of Alabama and a Fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ.