Suppressing Awareness Regarding Breast Cancer

A few weeks ago, I was in Portland to give a talk to the local guild of the Catholic Medical Association about how the medical profession has – like many if not most others today – given itself over to the ideological aims of the wider culture. There are several such aims, to be sure, but chief among them has been the installation of unbridled sexual autonomy.

Commentators such as Mary Eberstadt have given a name to what this effort has wrought: the New Intolerance. Without the Sexual Revolution, we would not have the kind of intolerance we are afflicted with today, in which the Little Sisters of the Poor find themselves in court, and Mozilla CEO Brandon Eich finds himself ousted from the very company he founded. That’s what can happen to those who withhold assent to the regnant laissez-faire sexual creed.

Since the event I spoke at was scheduled in the middle of October (Breast Cancer Awareness Month, as we cannot escape noticing), I decided to talk about the reproductive risk factors for breast cancer that are studiously sidestepped in the public domain, which defeats the purpose of any campaign ostensibly designed to raise awareness.

I’ve written about these matters on a number of occasions in TCT and elsewhere, so I won’t go into great detail here. In a nutshell, however, giving birth earlier rather than later (or never) and breastfeeding are protective, whereas the use of oral contraceptives and induced abortion are harmful, even if public health authorities such as the National Cancer Institute scandalously deny the latter.

Pragmatic observations of this nature are not easily brooked. Not even concern about women’s health is enough to overcome the New Intolerance. The same must be said about the recent Planned Parenthood videos: not even our innate revulsion over them has been enough to decelerate the sway of the New Intolerance.

Talk of actual prevention of breast cancer, rather than screening, is mainly limited to things like diet and exercise, even though the reproductive risk factors are much more consequential than, say, eating broccoli every night and fiber every morning. Breast cancer certainly has many causes, but which factors do you suppose most likely account for the sharp rise in incidence since the early 1970s?

For that reason alone, they deserve far greater attention. Indeed, highlighting them is of added urgency considering the quite limited benefits of that long-touted “early detection” measure, the mammogram. Recent international reports have recommended that current screening programs be scrapped, as they may well do more harm than good, or have concluded that, in any event, they do not contribute to reduced mortality. In fact, just the other day, the American Cancer Society came out with revised guidelines, essentially ratifying the view that their usefulness is more limited than long supposed.


The relevance of these reproductive factors is not widely known, even among highly committed Catholic physicians. So in that sense I wasn’t “preaching to the choir”; it was, however, a friendly audience, which is something to be grateful for even if it is also true that honest exchanges with less friendly audiences should also be pursued.

Yet the question remains: how do you make headway with those whose prior commitment to the sexual revolution predisposes them to reject anything (even science) that threatens to undermine its supposed goodness? Or with authorities who know that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer but won’t admit it because it is too politically sensitive? They know that actually coming forward with the truth would put them in harm’s way.

The late 19th and early 20th century Italian doctor and saint, Joseph Moscati, knew what it was like to live a life of science as a man of faith in a hostile culture. His counsel should be broadcast widely today as it applies to those from all walks of life:

Love the truth, show yourself as you are, without pretenses and fears. . .and if the truth causes you persecution, accept it, and if it causes you some torment, bear it. And if for the sake of truth you should sacrifice yourself and your life, be strong in your sacrifice.

That timeless pearl of wisdom is really the only way to proceed, given that some interpret the truth as an attack on their very dignity, or what they hold dear. They may not be prepared to budge, even if they hear it said that moral truth is essential to finding real happiness and peace.

Yet there are those who are open to the truth or who are beginning to perceive it, either via the intellectual route or by painful experience. Since openness to the truth remains a possibility for everyone, and as Dominican friar and bioethicist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco has argued, we should not speak of contentious bioethical issues without also speaking of mercy. This, I think, is not altogether inconsistent with what Pope Francis has in mind for the upcoming Year of Mercy.

Speaking the truth in and of itself is an act of mercy, and a necessary precondition for deeper reconciliation and healing. Yet despair may linger over finding the kind of healing that can unsaddle the heaviest of burdens and sooth the most searing of wounds.

According to St. Faustina’s Diary, Jesus insists He does not “want to punish aching mankind,” but to heal it. He wants us to know His mercy is greater than our own individual sins and those of the entire world. He goes so far as to say: “Do not argue with Me about your wretchedness. You will give me pleasure if you hand over to me all your troubles and griefs.”

The only reason these words could be consoling is if they are also true. Deo Gratias!


Robert Royal lecture poster_screen2

Click on the image to expand and learn the details of Robert Royal’s lecture tonight at New York University

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.