Women who have children have lower risks of breast, ovarian, and uterine cancer compared childless (nulliparous) women, so researchers have suggested the possibility of giving them the pill to regulate their menstrual cycles and statistically improve their health, rather than for contraceptive reasons.
Dr Kara Britt, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, and Professor Roger Short, University of Melbourne, Australia, raises the issue in a comment published in The Lancet, stating that since the contraceptive pill reduces overall mortality and mortality due to ovarian and uterine cancer, Catholic nuns should be given the pill for health, rather than contraceptive reasons.
Nulliparous women have more ovulation / menstrual cycles than women who have children, due to the absence of pregnancy and lactation. The increased number of cycles is thought to increase their cancer risk. Other factors including more overall cycles, regardless of having children or not, also increase cancer risk, for example, going through puberty earlier or menopause later. Women who have children further decrease their risk of these cancers if they have their first child at a young age, bear more children, and breastfeed.
The authors point out that the risk of developing ovarian and endometrial cancers falls by 50-60% in pill users compared with never-users. A protection that is evident for 20 years, showing a clear long-term benefit.
Of course, as with any medication, the pill is not risk-free. For example, the combined oestrogen/progestogen pill can increase the risk of blood clots (venous thromboembolism), and as such the woman's medical history should always be considered.
It is also known that the pill carries an increased risk of breast cancer, especially in cases where there is a family history of the disease. The pill can also cause other issues, such as fluid retention, nausea, headaches, and there has been a recent controversy with Bayer, the maker of the Yazmin brand of later generation pills, regarding the withholding evidence of health risks from the FDA.
The authors conclude:
"The Catholic church condemns all forms of contraception, as outlined by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae in 1968. Although Humanae Vitae never mentions nuns, they should be free the use the contraceptive pill to protect against the hazards of nulliparity since the document states that 'the Church in no way regards as unlawful therapeutic means considered necessary to cure organic diseases, even though they also have a contraceptive effect'.
If the Catholic church could make the 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."
It's probably a little unfair to childless women and especially those of the cloth to make sweeping statements about their health, especially since many nuns live relatively humble and frugal lives, that might, in fact, decrease their risks of diseases like cancer.
It would probably require some hard data from nuns around the world to assess their cancer risks before allocating hormone pills ad lib. On the other hand, obviously the church would be wise to offer its disciples every health and scientific benefit available.
Written by Rupert Shepherd