Revisiting an old post on contraception and NFP

Many years ago I wrote a post on survey data from the Guttmacher Institute on use of Natural Family Planning.  To quote from my lede:

The report finds that only 2% of Catholic women use natural family planning, and that this number does not vary significantly when frequency of mass attendance is taken into account.   The figure rises to 3% among married Catholic women.

This provoked an interesting discussion going in several directions, one of which was challenging the numbers themselves.  I was reminded of this post because recently America Magazine has published the results of an in-depth survey of Catholic women that they commissioned from CARA.  The full results of the survey can be found here as a PDF file.

As part of the survey they asked women about their use of Natural Family Planning.  Their data is of interest because of the large sample size, which let them meaningfully analyze their data along several axes, including age, level of commitment (i.e., mass attendance), and ethnic identity (anglo vs. hispanic).  Here is the summary of the data as given by America; you can read the full details in the above PDF:

A minority of Catholic women in our survey have used natural family planning (defined in our question as “a method of postponing pregnancy without the use of artificial contraception”). One in five women who had ever been married or were living with a partner said they had practiced N.F.P. with a partner.

Natural family planning is a method of observing the signs of fertility, so couples can decide whether or not to have sex at the times a woman is most likely to be able to conceive a child. The Catechism of the Catholic Church answers the question “When is it moral to regulate births?” with a variety of factors to observe: Is it a decision free from external pressure; is it driven by serious reasons, not selfishness; is it sought using moral (non-contraceptive) means? (No. 497).

We asked the women who used N.F.P. about what factors were most important to them when they decided how to space births. Financial concerns were some of the most commonly cited: 38 percent of women said it was very important to them. The next most frequently cited reasons were not wanting more children (34 percent) and a woman’s relationship with her husband (33 percent).

Digging more deeply into the data, while the mean is 20% across the whole sample, there is a significant swing depending on age group; however, no subgroup reports more than 35% yes in response to the question about using NFP.  Also interesting is an uptick from my generation (post Vatican II) and millenials, rising from 21% to 26%.

These numbers are very different from those in the Guttmacher Institute, but a significant portion of the difference probably comes from the structure of the survey itself:  how the question was framed, etc.   (And, back in 2011 I managed to cover myself by arguing that even if the Guttmacher numbers were off by an order of magnitude, the problems they raised still existed–and the numbers in fact differ by about this much.)  One thing missing from this data is that it presents a simple binary: did you ever use NFP, yes or no.  It tells us nothing (as best as I can tell) about length of use:  did the women continue to use it throughout their fertile period or did they switch to some form of contraception?   Some data may have been buried in the associated free response question, but this does not appear to be summarized in the report.

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