Medical experts blast claim that nuns need contraception

Women religious at World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid.
Women religious at World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid.

.- An article claiming that nuns should use contraception to lower their risk of breast, ovarian and uterine cancers drew criticism from medical professionals who say the study’s basis is seriously flawed.

Karen Brauer, president of Pharmacists for Life International, said the argument was so poorly made that she initially thought the article was a parody.

“It’s that bad,” she told CNA on Dec. 8, adding that the claims were not only outlandish but unsupported by the evidence presented in the analysis.

Australian researchers Kara Britt and Roger Short penned a Dec. 8 article in the international medical journal The Lancet warning that nuns “pay a terrible price for their chastity.”

They argued that because they never bear children, nuns have a higher probability of death from breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers.

Britt and Short lamented the “plight” of religious sisters and called on the Church to “make the oral contraceptive pill freely available to all its nuns” in order to decrease risk of these cancers.

But Brauer pointed out that this claim is misleading, even according to the study on which the authors based their arguments.

Referencing a graph included in the article, she noted that before age 70, the nuns actually had a lower rate of death from uterine cancer than the control group. Their comparative rates of death from ovarian cancer fluctuated before age 80, being at times above, below and equal to that of the control group.

According to the study, breast cancer was the only one for which the nuns were consistently at higher risk than the control group of women, said Brauer. However, Britt and Short did not claim that the pill would reduce the risk of breast cancer, as they did for ovarian and uterine cancer, but simply that it would “not increase” the risk of breast cancer.

In addition, said Brauer, women who use oral contraceptives face “considerable” negative side effects. These include a significantly increased risk of deep venous thrombosis, which causes potentially life-threatening blood clots—a fact that Britt and Short acknowledged.

For these reasons, using the pill only to prevent disease “doesn’t make any sense,” she said.

Oncologist Dr. Luis Raez weighed in that the Lancet article has more political significance than scientific value.

Raez told CNA on Dec. 8 that because of the risk of side effects that accompanies any pill, doctors generally use prescription drugs to treat cancer and diseases rather than prevent them.

In the case of the oral contraceptive pill, users are at higher risk of blood clots and hypertension, among other conditions, he said.

He also observed that even among women such as nuns who do not bear children, ovarian and uterine cancers are rare.

Such cancers are often curable if discovered early through regular checkups, he added, noting that the pill's actual benefits would likely be minimal as it does not eliminate the risk of these cancers.

Raez argued that it would be absurd to use oral contraception in hopes of preventing a rare type of cancer while putting yourself at elevated risk for other serious problems.

He also said that most women who take the pill do so for only a limited number of years, because they stop using contraceptives when they decide to have children. However, nuns, who never have children, could be on the pill for multiple decades.

The risk factors of using the pill in this way have not been adequately evaluated for such a course of action to be recommended, he underscored.

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