Nuns should be given the contraceptive pill to reduce the high death rates from breast, ovarian and uterine cancer that result from their childlessness, say scientists. Not having children is a risk factor for cancer because pregnancy and breastfeeding reduce the number of ovulatory cycles a woman has. More ovulatory cycles increase the risk of cancer. Women who begin their periods early and reach the menopause late also have a higher risk.
In the first half of the 20th century scientists who studied nearly 32 000 Catholic nuns in the United States established that their death rates from breast, ovarian and uterine cancer were higher than those of other women their age. In 1970 it was formally recognised that the lack of childbearing in nuns raised their breast-cancer risk.
The oral contraceptive pill has been shown to reduce the overall mortality rates of women by 12%. The risk of developing ovarian and endometrial cancers decreases by 50% to 60% among pill-users compared with those who have never used the pill — offering protection that persists for 20 years. However, there is an increased risk of blood clots.
Writing in the medical journal The Lancet, Dr Kara Britt and Professor Roger Short said nuns should have the option to take the pill. “The Catholic church condemns all forms of contraception, as outlined by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae in 1968. Nuns are not mentioned in Humanae Vitae.
But they should be free to 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’.” —