Majority of Women Use Contraception Irrespective of Religious Affiliation

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”).  

Sexual Behavior

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:

  • 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.”  

Contraceptive Use

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.”

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  • princess-jourdan

    Thank you for posting this!! As someone who enjoys studying Theology, I still do not understand where this religious hostility to contraception comes from. I am constantly telling people that God really does not care if and how many children you have. Having ten children does not make you a better Christian than someone who only has two children or none at all. There is nothing sinful or wrong with wanting to control the number of offspring you produce. We’re not wild animals, for God’s sake. All that matters to God is that you be good to others and take care of yourself. And that part about being good to others is something the GOP should take note of!

  • islandkat

    Interesting article and some good statistics. However, I find it a little slanted to those women that hold to Christian beliefs. Might we not create a better argument to this statement that a “Majority of Women Use Contraception Irrespective of Religious Affiliation” if it included statistics on women of say Jewish, Islamic, Hindu/Buddhist belief systems as well. The Big 5 so to speak. Granted, it might change statistics if one were to include Islamic, but that’s an area that truly needs work and a growing voice in our society. Otherwise you might as well say that a “Majority of ‘Christian’ Women Use Contraception Irrespective of Denominational Affiliation“.

  • arekushieru

    Actually, I think the statistics would be slanted if we used women of Jewish, Hindu/Buddhist belief systems.  Those women, of those three belief systems, who use contraception are generally given more freedom to determine their reproductive lives than people of Christianity or Islam.

  • elburto

    I was raised as a christian, no objection to BC or abortion. I know fairly left leaning jewish and muslim women who, again are free to do what they want. It’s when we start climbing up the ladder to more rigid strains of any Abrahamic belief-set that an unwillingness to resist ‘God’s Will’ seems to appear. Fundie christians, orthodox jews (particularly the charedim and chassids) and Wahabi muslims are particularly against BC of any kind. These women also seem less likely to transgress such a code and just use BC anyway. Using BC often involves going to see your community religious leader and asking for permission to prevent pregnancy.

    Especially WRT orthodox judaism their ‘purity’ laws essentially make sure that the only time married couples have sex is mid-cycle, ie. around ovulation. I know a 22 year old woman with 5 kids under 4 who was refused permission to use BC. She won’t consider doing it, because her rabbi said no, and it was incredibly difficult for her to even ask in the first place.

  • heidi

    Irrespective is not a word in the english language.  Look it up.

    Use a dictionary next time you use big words.


  • prochoiceferret

    Irrespective is not a word in the english language.  Look it up.


    Well, okay






    without regard to something else, especially something specified; ignoring or discounting (usually followed by of ): Irrespective of my wishes, I should go.

    1630–40; ir-2  + respective

    ir·re·spec·tive·ly, adverb



    Use a dictionary next time you use big words.


    Not all of us need to.

  • crowepps

    The word irrespective is often used by lawyers in legal paperwork, and means “setting that [issue] to one side” or “without regard to [the previous statement]”.

  • crowepps

    You’d think somebody posting ‘use a dictionary next time” would, you know, wait to hit “save” until she’d doublechecked by — using a dictionary.

  • therealistmom

    I’m guessing our “friend” here has mixed up “irrespective” with “irregardless” which isn’t a word. (It does show in the dictionary, as a “nonstandard” word, since adding “ir-” to the word regardless would actually make it have the opposite meaning as what it is used to convey. “Ain’t” is another nonstandard word, being found in discourse but not proper language.)

    Oh, by the way wannabe grammar nazi, “English” should be capitalized. Just saying.

  • arekushieru

    Elburto, I was raised a Catholic, became an agnostic deist and am now a Christian Unitarian Universalist.  So my experiences are probably similar to yours, but within the context of the message I was replying to, it seems to me that more non-fundamentalist groups within Christianity and Islam have SOME kind of objection to BC and abortion, although maybe not explicitly stated, than they do in non-fundamentalist Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist sects. 

  • crowepps

    “Ain’t” is another nonstandard word

    Ain’t was used correctly as a contraction for “am not” after its coining in around 1770 but has been debased by being used more generally as an incorrect substitute for have not, has not, do not, does not,  and did not to the point where everyone thinks the word itself is incorrect.


    You have to admit, replying to, “You can’t just walk out” with “Am I not” just does not have the same ring as “Ain’t I!”

  • therealistmom

    Most resources I have seen listed “ain’t” as “nonstandard”, it’s fascinating to know it has a legitimate etymology. :)

  • colleen

    Irrespective is a “big word”?

    It is if you’re in the 6th grade.

  • ack

    The statistics would simply be representative of what the headline described. They wouldn’t be slanted. Yes, headlines need to be short, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be inclusive. We talk a LOT about how the various forms of Christianity don’t make up the majority of religious beliefs. I hope that in the future, this site won’t propegate the ethnocentricity of JESUS IS GOD PERIOD ENDSTOP AND YOU’RE IMMORAL AND NAIVE IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE LIKE I DO that we all fight so hard against.

  • ack

    We need to identify stats accurately. We can generally point to a genuine use of polling, numbers, and research. The anti-choice folks can’t. We don’t need to misrepresent or over-represent our data. If the numbers are focused in the states, and in Christianity, there isn’t any limitation to generalization within the states in explaining that to people (according to current research on religous identification, which is readily available).

  • arekushieru

    Umm, ack, you replied to me, but, in general, your comments seem to be in agreement with mine.  

    In case I’m misinterpreting you, and you really aren’t agreeing with me, let me clarify: I was responding to IslandKat.  My response was more inclined towards an ‘if anything’ context.  IslandKat made the assumption that the article had been slanted against the Christian perspective on birth control and contraception and that including the Islamic perspective would make it less so. I suggested that using data on Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism would likely make it less so, instead.  

    I’m actually suggesting, as a Christian (lol), that the Christian based perspective on birth control and contraception is less God-like than that of Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism.