Posted by: L. E. Barnes | December 9, 2011

Nuns on the Pill (?!)

Here’s food for thought (taken from a blog on the abc News website):

Should Nuns Take the Pill for Health Reasons?

By Katie Moisse

The world’s 94,790 nuns pay a price for their chastity: an increased risk of breast, ovarian and uterine cancers.

A commentary by Australian researchers highlights the health hazards of nulliparity (the condition of never being pregnant) – hazards they say could be minimized by the birth control pill.

“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,” Kara Britt of Monash University in Victoria and Roger Short of the University of Melbourne wrote in The Lancet.

The term “accursed pests” was first used to describe breast cancer among nuns by Italian physician Bernadino Ramazzini in 1713. Since then, severe epidemiological studies have confirmed the risk, including a study of more than 31,658 Catholic nuns in the U.S. between 1900 and 1954 that found an increased risk of dying from breast, ovarian and uterine cancer.

Because they don’t experience pregnancy or lactation, women who don’t have sex have more ovulatory menstrual cycles. That increased number of cycles is directly linked to an increased risk of cancer. But the birth control pill – a form of contraception condemned by the Catholic Church – has been shown to reduce the risk of ovarian and uterine cancer by up to 60 percent.

“The Catholic Church condemns all forms of contraception except abstinence, as outlined by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae in 1968,” wrote Britt and Short. “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.”

But according to Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, nuns have the same access to medical care as any other woman – and that includes access to the pill.

“They’re presuming the church has some kind of authority over the medical care of nuns, which it doesn’t,” Walsh told ABC News. “A nun goes to a doctor for her medical care, and if that medical care requires a certain kind of medicine then that medicine is prescribed.”

Oral contraceptives can increase the risk of blood clots, a risk thought to be higher in some newer versions of the pill.

“The suggestion that all nuns should take contraception is rather sweeping and almost irresponsible,” said Walsh. “There are risks with the pill just as there are risks with doing nothing with regard to uterine and ovarian cancer.”

Walsh said the benefits of the pill in reducing cancer risk must be weighed against the side effects.

“A nun’s decision needs to be worked out between the nun and her doctor,” she said.

I was told that the Church’s teaching on “the pill” was that it was only unacceptable for use as a contraceptive, but acceptable for treating medical conditions (which some women do in fact use it for). Is that the case? Your thoughts on this issue?



  1. I think I will let the Church decide.

    • That’s probably the best thing for us lay people to do!

  2. Thanks for posting. I read the entire post at the source. I think this is utterly ridiculous for the author of the article to even suggest. My sister is a novice with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia and she would NEVER consent to this. I agree that if the Pill is used strictly for medical reasons, it’s not immoral. However, I personally believe there are better and more healthy alternatives to synthetic hormones (and I strong believer in the use of NFP). And…there are so many side effects to the Pill, I question its use in any case.

    • You raise a good point about alternatives to synthetic hormones. Maybe “the pill” isn’t the best way to achieve the desired results in a case such as this (i.e., reducing the chance of these women developing certain cancers). And I too have heard about its side effects, so it seems that taking this or another synthetic hormone would simply mean trading one risk for another.

  3. My understanding is that there is nothing immoral about any medication per se–including those typically known as oral contraceptives. What is immoral is the use to which they are put. While the use for which most women take those drugs (the effect of causing (hopefully) temporary sterility) is immoral, assuming the nun was faithful to her vows, that would not be the case.

    The real questions are whether the known adverse effects of those drugs are outweighed by the advantages, and how long must one take this drug to achieve optimal effectiveness. In other words, do women who do not intend to have children “need” to take “the pill” throughout their childbearing years to gain the advantages, or will a year or two be sufficient? What health risks to nuns avoid by not engaging in sexual activity (even compared to couples where both were virgins at marriage and remain faithful) and childbearing? Are any of those advantages eliminated if those synthetic hormones are used?

    Bottom line, I doubt sufficient information has been developed at this point, but if it has, and it shows a clear advantage to taking those drugs for a limited period of time, I can’t see any moral reason for hesitating to take those drugs, unless the particular nun is afraid it will make it more tempting to break the vow of chastity.

    • I agree. Of course, the first consideration is what the Church teaches on such matters, and then there must be a comparison of the costs to the benefits. Would taking “the pill” mean that the nuns would just be trading one health risk for another? After all, this and other such contraceptives have side effects or pose health risks of their own.

      I’ll be interested in hearing what Church experts have to say on this.

  4. Hi Evan. When I first read that article I thought it was a bunch of hooey. Many M.D.’s such as Drs. Mercola and David Brownstein have more than adequately discussed the grave danger of taking synthetic hormones. This article is a Trojan horse to get the Church to say that it’s OK for nuns to take the pill. Then it will be extended to other women as a way to sneak in contraceptives. There is always a hidden agenda when people start playing with this subject.

    I fully agree with Sister Mary Ann Walsh in what she says, and RAnn, too.

    There’s something else: we’re all going to die of something someday. While we should do nothing to harm our bodies, it doesn’t follow that we are morally obligated to take an action that could be, and has proven to be, harmful to many, just because it *might* avert a different kind of harm. We belong to God, body and soul. We have to be ready to surrender both in the manner in which He decides.

    • Granted, this “study” and the recommendations by these people may be nothing more than an attempt to undermine the Church’s stand against contraceptives. Makes you wonder…

      And you’ve echoed what I said–that this could be a case where the “cure” is worse than the “disease” (i.e., those who followed this advice and used “the pill” may just be opening the door to a different set of health risks, even if they might be reducing other health risks).

  5. A doctor addresses this story:

    • Thanks for the link!

  6. I agree with what Ellen said.

    • As do I!

  7. Doesn’t the pill cause breast cancer…..????

    • I’m not sure. It seems that I’ve heard it can contribute to breast cancer. Anyway, I suspect that taking it wouldn’t be the best of ideas…

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