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The Pill for nuns? Here's a better idea

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 09, 2011

Two Australian researchers have captured public attention with their suggestion that Catholic nuns should take birth-control pills—for the sake of their health! The argument, put forward in The Lancet is fascinating: The rate of ovarian, uterine, and breast cancer is significantly higher among American nuns over the age of 70 than among other women in the same age group. Women who never experience pregnancy are more likely to develop these cancers. However, women who use the Pill are somewhat less likely to develop them. The authors of the Lancet study conclude:

If the Catholic Church could make the oral contraceptive pill freely available to all its nuns, it would reduce the risk of those accursed pests, cancer of the ovary and uterus, and give nuns' plight the recognition it deserves.

There are three problems with this recommendation:

  1. The researchers suggest that the increased risk of cancer among childless women is related to the number of menstrual cycles they undergo. So administering the Pill to elderly nuns, who are no longer having menstrual cycles, would be unlikely to have any effect.
  2. Giving the Pill to younger nuns could cause different problems, purely from a medical perspective, since oral contraceptives have been associated with heightened risk of heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, and blood clots. If you’re dying of a stroke in your 60s, it’s cold comfort to learn that you’re not likely to develop cancer in your 70s.
  3. If the underlying cause of heightened cancer rates is the number of menstrual cycles, that news should be important not just to the small number of women who are celibate, but also to the large majority who are married. There’s a simple and well-known way for a woman to cut down on the number of menstrual cycles in her lifetime: have children and breast-feed them.

The Lancet authors found an eye-catching way to present their research, advocating the Pill for nuns. But the argument for that policy is shaky, even on purely medical grounds. Yet the same research, it seems, would provide support for a much stronger argument, which could be addressed to a much larger audience: Married women should have more children—for the sake of their health!

Or put it this way: If you think that maybe nuns should take the Pill, you should also believe, for the same reasons, that married women definitely shouldn’t.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Dec. 11, 2011 12:23 PM ET USA

    I really wanted to say something shocking, something sarcastic, and reflective of the lunacy such a suggestion really is - I just can't come up with it. This is so ridiculous I can't even ridicule how stupid this is. Those guys need their heads examined. The link to ovvarian cancer is primarily due to a woman's cycle? Maybe the link to sin is breathing - hey I did it...

  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - Dec. 10, 2011 10:20 PM ET USA

    An easy way to test this 'cycle number' theory would be to compare mothers with 5ish kids (about 48 months, 4 years, of no cycles) of the same age to Nuns who have had none.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Dec. 09, 2011 8:15 PM ET USA

    They've completely dismissed fertility as an aspect of the body's health and vitality. Nuns are as healthy in that respect as other women. Like other women, that capacity for motherhood enters into their self understanding. Mary entrusted her fertility to God, in some way so does any consecrated woman. The fact nuns do not "make use of" bodily fertility does not mean it is disposable. The researchers also care nothing for the Church's witness to chastity, an aspect of spiritual health.

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