Before I explain why PolitiFact is once again being deliberately misleading, grossly incompetent, or some hellbroth of these distinguishing characteristics, you'll have bear with me. Part of the reason PolitiFact gets away with being so shoddy is that it counts on its readers believing that it can be trusted to explain any necessary context to justify its status as judge, jury, and factual executioner. So first, some background.

If you've been paying attention to the coverage of the controversy over the President's health care bill forcing religious institutions to pay for contraception and abortifacients, you've probably seen this statistic trotted out: "98 percent of Catholic women have used contraception."

The statistic comes from a Guttmacher Institute study from last year. Keep in mind that the Guttmacher Institute is the former research arm of Planned Parenthood, and a major reason why this figure is being tossed around by the media is that the White House cited it recently.

Aside from the fact that this statistic isn't coming from a terribly objective source, the other problem is that the study simply didn't say that 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraception. Here's a very thorough debunking of this interpretation of the study, but my better half summed it up:

Guttmacher did say in its summary that “Among all women who have had sex, 99% have ever used a contraceptive method other than natural family planning. This figure is virtually the same, 98%, among sexually experienced Catholic women.”

But that’s not in any way an accurate statement of what its own survey found.

On the very same page, it explains that its survey was restricted to women aged 15-44, so that cuts out all women who were older than 44 at the time of the survey. And a footnote explains that a rather significant chunk of women were excluded from this figure of “all women” — namely, women who are pregnant, post-partum or trying to get pregnant.” A later footnote says that the only women who had sex in the last three months were included in this group. Finally, included in this 98 percent figure of current contraceptive users are the 11 percent who report no method.

After the media began uncritically regurgitating this stat, the Washington Post's Sarah Kliff, one of the better mainstream media reporters covering this debate, looked into the study and concluded: "Have 98 percent of Catholic women used contraceptives? Not quite." She even spoke to the author of the study:

I called up Rachel Jones, the lead author of this study, to have her walk me through the research. She agrees that her study results do not speak to all Catholic women. Rather, they speak to a specific demographic: women between 15- and 44-years-old who have ever been sexually active.

“If we had included women up to age 89, we would have probably found a lower proportion had ever used artificial contraception,” said Jones. “But the policies being implemented right now are ones that don’t effect them. Right here and now, we’ve got 98 percent who have ever used a contraceptive method. Those are who will be impacted by this.”

I don't know if the author of the study narrowly restricted the sample size to get the soundbite she wanted, but I also don't get the feeling that Guttmacher is bothered that their study is being routinely cited in support of the the contraception mandate without any of the necessary caveats.

Anyway, care to take a guess at what PolitiFact has to say about this 98 percent claim? That's right, "mostly true."

If you read PolitiFact's justification, they also note that the study's conclusion is highly conditional—but naturally, they wave away any complaints by invoking argumentative nonsense and eliding past important distinctions. Here's a classic PolitFact howler from its penultimate paragraph: "We think it’s reasonable to note that most women have used contraceptives even if they aren’t currently using them." Note that you could drive a tank battalion through the difference between "most" and the actual figure being checked here, which is "98 percent."

So all in all, this is vintage PolitiFact. Start by proclaiming the truth of something with an entirely unwarranted level of certainty, and then employ selective evidence to ensure that you arrive at that conclusion.

For more on PolitiFact's general ineptitude see here and here.

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