Christian Right on Contraceptive Research

The headline reads, “New Study Wildly Overstates Benefits of Contraception.” The article by Michael New (here) originally appeared in National Review, and was reprinted in The Christian Post. He criticized a study from Child Trends (here for blog; here for detailed PDF) which showed that if you educate women who are seeking contraceptives about the effectiveness of the alternatives, you get large reductions in unwanted pregnancies and abortions (roughly 60%). This should not be a surprising result, given that 45% of all pregnancies are unintended, and that most of these pregnancies result from the use of no contraceptive at all. It stands to reason that a reasonable choice of contraceptive will make a very big difference. (Also, nearly a third of all couples use condoms, which are not among the more effective methods.)

Mr. New says, “It should come as no surprise that this study has number of methodological problems.” The first problem: “The authors extrapolate from a 2015 study in which 20 Planned Parenthood clinics across the United States improved their counseling and offered women access to a wider range of contraceptive methods.” First, Mr. New mischaracterizes the study, which focused on better education about the effectiveness of the alternatives. Second, his only criticism involves the alleged “extrapolation” from the study.

Mr. New is either unacquainted with the definition of extrapolation, or is intentionally being deceitful. The relevant definition from Merriam-Webster is “to project, extend, or expand (known data or experience) into an area not known or experienced so as to arrive at a usually conjectural knowledge of the unknown area.” But the Child Trends study made no attempt to project any results into an “unknown area.” They simply assumed that the results of the 20 clinic study were reliable and replicable – that if they repeated their instructions in additional clinics or offices, they would get essentially the same results. This is a conservative assumption.

Mr. New’s second criticism is that “the authors of the new Child Trends study simply assume that the greater use of more reliable contraceptives will automatically reduce the unintended-pregnancy rate.” This is false. They used extensive data on the real-world effectiveness of the different contraceptives – how likely users of pills, condoms, IUD’s, etc. are to become pregnant. The authors only assume that new users of pills, for example, will have the same likelihood of an unwanted pregnancy as existing users. This is straightforward.

Not only is Mr. New’s claim that the study “wildly overstates” preposterous, those results are actually conservative. None of the alternatives studied by Child Trends/Planned Parenthood included the day-after pill. If these were available over the counter, as many medical experts recommend, it would almost certainly have a considerable impact on unwanted pregnancies and abortions. Even though contraceptives can greatly reduce the number of abortions – public enemy number 1 for the religious right – the right wage a holy war against their use. Perhaps they fear losing their most effective means of rabble rousing. But they have no fear of false witness and misrepresenting the facts about contraception.

Both the National Review and The Christian Post note that Mr. New has a position at Ave Maria University. They fail to mention it is in the political science department. That would make it obvious that he is a political hack with no credentials in medical research. He apparently specializes in writing legislation against abortion. I am told he is a regular contributor to National Review, whose contributors are far more likely to be political hacks and propagandists than respected researchers.