Contraception, News Coverage, and Identifying Fringe Groups

The story of the day comes from The New York Times, which reports on this study in the New England Journal of Medicine showing the results of a project that provided long-term contraception to teenagers. The results were both stunning and completely predictable (we'll get to that in a second), but I want to raise a small objection to something in the Times story. It concerns how groups should be identified, and when it's necessary to alert readers to the fact that you're quoting somebody on the fringe.

But first, the news: it turns out that if you offer long-term contraception (mostly IUDs and implants) to teenagers, they don't get pregnant. Take a look at this graph, which compares teens in the program (called CHOICE) to national data on young women of the same age:

As I said, these results are remarkable in that the reductions in pregnancy are so dramatic, but also predictable—birth control works well at controlling birth! If you have a teenage daughter, you should probably think about getting her an IUD. Now to the part of the Times story that I have a problem with. We start with this:

The study results, published Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine, come days after the American Academy of Pediatrics, the primary professional organization for pediatricians, issued new guidelines urging doctors to recommend long-action reversible contraception over less effective methods to sexually active teenagers.

So far, so good. But then a few paragraphs later we see this:

Dr. Den Trumbull, the president of the American College of Pediatricians, which takes an abstinence-only position, criticized the academy's new guidelines as "another effort to promote the myth of safe sex while ignoring the dire consequences that early sexual activity can have among the young people involved."

Wait, who? The American College of Pediatricians? You just said that the American Academy of Pediatrics is the primary professional organization for pediatricians, so who's this? Is the ACP the Pepsi to the AAP's Coke? No it isn't.

The American College of Pediatricians is a tiny group of socially conservative doctors that seems to exist in order to oppose gay rights and sinful fornicating. While the AAP boasts a membership of 62,000 physicians, the ACP, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, "is believed to have no more than 200 members." It formed in 2002 as a protest after the AAP came out in favor of the rights of gays and lesbians to adopt children. The group's vision statement endorses "the fundamental mother-father family unit, within the context of marriage," "the unique value of every human life from the time of conception to natural death," "the essential role parents play in encouraging and correcting the child"—that means corporal punishment, which the group favors—and "the physical and emotional benefits of sexual abstinence until marriage."

So basically, they're Focus on the Family in a white coat. Which doesn't mean they necessarily shouldn't be quoted in an article like this one, but it does mean that they should be identified with a little more precision. Simply saying that the group "takes an abstinence-only position" isn't enough, not by a long shot. It's fair to say that almost no one who read this article would have heard of them, and just by reading it you might think they're a direct competitor to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But they aren't. They're a group with a miniscule membership that was created to advance a socially conservative policy agenda. So in order to make readers understand, you have to say something about the group's size relative to the organization that really represents pediatricians, and something about their raison d'etre. It isn't hard—all that's necessary would be, "...the American College of Pediatricians, a small group of doctors that advocates socially conservative positions on matters of marriage, sexuality, and contraception..." or something similar.

They would no doubt interpret that identification as belittling them, but it's the truth. What they got instead was The New York Times putting them nearly on par with the AAP, something they certainly don't deserve.

This kind of question comes up a lot, and I'm not saying that membership numbers and detailed ideological descriptions are necessary every time a reporter quotes a think tank or advocacy organization. But a little context is always helpful.