The firestorm of negative publicity generated by the HHS contraceptive-coverage mandate has put President Obama’s allies on the defensive. Several members of the Catholic Left, including E.J. Dionne and Michael Sean Winters, have criticized the mandate, and some Democratic Senators have openly called for a compromise. However, late last week, many of President Obama’s liberal allies were making a concerted effort to defend the mandate. Most of them are skirting the religious-liberty and conscience issues and arguing that contraceptive use is both beneficial and universal. Unfortunately, the statistics they are using to defend the mandate are misleading at best.
Senator Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) released a statement claiming that Title X family-planning programs prevent over 400,000 abortions a year. However, this statistic comes from a flawed Guttmacher Institute analysis which assumes that, in the absence of these programs, women would be unable to find contraception of equal quality elsewhere and would not change their sexual activity. In reality, there is little evidence that the contraceptive mandate will be able to lower the incidence of abortion. A 2002 Guttmacher study of nearly 5,000 sexually active women not using contraception found that only 12 percent cited cost or availability as their reason for not using contraception. Furthermore, a recently released CDC study of 5,000 teenage girls who gave birth after unplanned pregnancies found that only 13 percent had trouble accessing birth control.
Additionally, many defenders of the HHS mandate have been citing a Guttmacher study from 2011 which claims that 98 percent of Catholic women have used birth control. This is misleading for several reasons. First, as social scientists know, categorizing people by their self identified religion can produce misleading results. If they had surveyed Catholic women who are active in their faith and attend Mass consistently, the results would have likely been different. Second, this statistic provides the percentage who have ever used birth control, not the percentage who currently or consistently use birth control. In fact, Guttmacher’s own findings indicate that when one analyzes current usage of contraception, the percentages decline.
Conservatives would do well to maintain their aggressive criticism of the HHS mandate. The United States has a great history of religious liberty and many Americans rightly find the sorts of conscience violations included in the HHS mandate offensive. That having been said, we should not let President Obama’s allies distract the American public. They spent much of last week trying to make the case that the new HHS mandate will only affect a small number of theologically conservative Catholics while offering millions of Americans significant public health benefits. There is plenty of evidence, however, that this is not the case.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan — Dearborn, a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J., and an adjunct scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute.