A recent study suggests women, including nuns, should begin using birth control to decrease their chances of ovarian, breast and endometrial cancers.
Australian doctors Kara Brit of Monash University and Roger Short of the University of Melbourne published their findings in The Lancet medical journal.
Along with the sacred vows of obedience and poverty taken by the 95,000 nuns in the world today, these servants of God also take the vow of chastity.
Short and Brit argue that reproductive factors, including having children at a young age, having multiple children, and breast feeding greatly decrease the risk of breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancers.
The increased chance of cancer in nulliparous women is caused by a more frequent amount of menstrual cycles, compared to the less frequent menstrual cycles of pregnant and lactating women.
JF Fraumeni and colleagues conducted a controlled experiment on 31,658 U.S. nuns from the year 1900 to 1954. Results indicate that over the period of 54 years, the probability of death for nuns was tripled compared to the general female population.
“It is not known how to improve the health of breasts that do not need to lactate, ovaries that need not ovulate, and a uterus that does not need to menstruate,” wrote Brit and Short.
Similarly, the risk of cancer jumps by 17 percent for every five years' delay in menopause.
The study also contends that the overall mortality rate for those regularly taking birth control is reduced by 12 percent compared to those who have never taken it.
Doctors Brit and Short suggest that the Catholic Church should allow nuns to take birth control to offset the “hazards of their nulliparity,” arguing that Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae of 1968, sanctions the use of contraception if the purpose is therapeutic.
“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,” wrote Brit and Short in The Lancet medical journal.
These results conflict with previous studies. As The National Cancer Institute contends, a 1996 analysis conducted by the Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer “found that women who were current or recent users of birth control pills had a slightly elevated risk of developing breast cancer.”
The study attributes this increase to the amount of synthetic hormones found in oral contraception. Certain cancers, including breast, rely heavily on hormonal imbalance, and therefore ingesting an unnatural amount of hormones into one’s system could increase the chances of cancer.
Although Brit and Short urge nuns to join the 150 million women currently taking birth control, such a choice evidently does not come without consequences.
The debate over the benefits and risks of birth control remains a heated argument in the medical community as well as in some faith communities, such as the Roman Catholic Church.