Look Out, Nuns!

The highly prestigious medical journal the Lancet recently published an article encouraging some women to take steps to address the “hazards of their nulliparity” – that is to say, of their never having children, which is a risk factor for several cancers, particularly of the breast.

You might be thinking: we just went through the annual pink ribbon exercise in breast cancer awareness, yet we never heard about the hazards of never having children. Or beginning to have them later in life. Or that bearing several children, beginning at an early age, and breastfeeding them all is quite protective against breast and other cancers.

I suppose it’s not a recommendation that sells, either literally (at the cash register) or figuratively (as is evident by astoundingly low fertility rates). 

So has the Lancet finally repudiated its descent into the kind of politically correct obfuscation that would have once been recognized as an unconscionable abdication of the very scientific integrity from which medical journals derive their credibility?

Unfortunately they have done nothing that constructive.

The upshot of their article is that nuns, who “pay a terrible price for their chastity,” should get on the birth control pill; all distinction between chastity and nulliparity (the subject they are examining) escapes the two Australian authors’ attention. A woman with eight children, for example, can lead a perfectly chaste life.

The pill seems a curious remedy to propose, even if it can lower the risk of some relatively rare cancers, since it causes other and more common cancers, and has a litany of other serious side effects.

Supposing for a moment that all nuns began taking the pill religiously and a modest number of ovarian and uterine cancers – already quite rare among nuns – were averted as a result, we would also see a considerable increase in cancers of the breast, liver and cervix.

The pill would also double a nun’s risk of stroke – and increase her likelihood of blood clots and heart attack. It could also adversely affect her mood, her weight, her blood pressure, and so forth.

The authors base their argument upon the dubious claim that the pill lowers the overall mortality rate, citing a study that has been convincingly refuted by a veteran authority on the matter.

Their own data also show that nuns, prior to age 70, actually have a lower risk of ovarian and uterine cancers, though after age 80, nuns do have higher mortality rate from these cancers. Breast cancer is generally more prevalent among nuns, but the authors brazenly claim that the pill does not increase the risk of breast cancer.

There is compelling evidence that the pill is linked with the sharp increase in breast cancer in recent decades, and the reasons why the pill, as well as induced (though not spontaneous) abortion increase breast cancer risk are not beyond the reach of the layperson to understand.

The authors make haste to remind us that the Catholic moral tradition allows an action (i.e. artificial contraception) to be taken in some circumstances for therapeutic reasons when it would not otherwise be permissible. But they are on very shaky ground in pressing for indiscriminate contraceptive use for preventive rather than selectively therapeutic purposes – not because they appeal to Catholic moral reasoning, but because the medical evidence, of which they are custodians, indicates this would not be very wise.

But no matter:  headlines around the world conveyed the impression that contraceptives are on balance a lifesaver – a multi-purpose health booster. Proselytizing comes first, and there will be more rejoicing at the Lancet over the one who comes to believe in the wisdom of contraception than the ninety-nine who already so fervently believe.

The Lancet may have also left some with the impression that it is nobly riding to the defense of selfless women who might be laboring in the Lord’s vineyard, but nonetheless remain, unlike the liberated masses, oppressed by the very Church they naïvely serve.

No stranger to promoting bad science in the service of a predetermined ideology, the Lancet in 2004 published a seriously contorted meta-analysis conducted by Oxford scientists intent on denying the link between induced abortion and breast cancer. This has allowed everyone – from governmental health bodies (such as the National Cancer Institute) to breast cancer advocacy groups – to cite that Lancet study and safely hide behind a false veneer of scientific credibility.

A new study conducted in Armenia by an international team of researchers (including members from the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins) published in October found that abortion basically triples (2.86) the risk of developing breast cancer. It also found that each year of delay in giving birth increased risk of breast cancer, and any birth to be protective. These findings are generally consistent with the preponderance of evidence going back decades, which the Lancet, through its 2004 “study,” still gets away with denying.

One wonders if the authors of the Armenian study, sitting on eye-popping findings of such great public health import, wished to have them published in the Lancet or another big name medical journal, but concluded that a submission with such unwanted findings, though worthy of global headlines, would simply be rejected. We should be grateful that they saw the light of day at all.

Coming from a journal bent on keeping everyone in the dark about the link between breast cancer and elective abortion – chosen by more than a million women a year in the United States alone – professing the desire merely “to give nuns’ plight the recognition it deserves” seems a touch disingenuous.

Were they actually faced with the prospect of social or legal rebuke, such disregard for the truth would take real chutzpah.


Matthew Hanley

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.