Nunsense about the pill

nunsenseDid you know that the Catholic Church says it’s OK for a doctor to use a knife?
Seriously, it’s OK. A doctor, as long as he is doing it for health reasons and not intentionally hurting the patient, can use a scalpel and actually cut someone open.
Ridiculous? Yes, but it is revelations of this intellectual caliber that are spicing the news pages right now in response to a Lancet journal article that says the contraceptive pill may help childless women to lower the risk of breast cancer. As a result, they are recommending Catholic nuns use the pill.
Yes, authors Kara Britt, from Monash University, and Roger Short, from the University of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia, have come out fighting for the women of the cloth in their article: The plight of nuns: hazards of nulliparity. There are two levels of ignorance on show here.
First there is the doctor and the knife scenario. Of course the doctor can use the knife even though the action of cutting someone open is otherwise a terribly bad thing to do. Likewise the Church teaches a woman can take the pill for health reasons as long as the intention is not for it to be used as a contraceptive, despite the possibility of a contraceptive outcome.
(The Church also teaches that if the pill used by a sexually active woman has the effect of being an abortifacient, then it should definitely not be taken, because there’s obviously a risk of far greater damage. There are different types of pills and individuals should do their research.)
But the second level of ignorance reaches higher and further into the realms of absurdity. Here it is from the horse’s mouth. The UK Daily Mail’s Jenny Hope said: “Regardless of their vows of celibacy – researchers in Australia say nuns should take the Pill.”
I wish Ms Hope would explain how taking the pill to avoide breast cancer can affect someone’s commitment to celibacy. She shows as much understanding of logic here as she does of the word "research". She says: “Research has shown that women using the Pill are at lower risk of getting any kind of cancer,” which is plain wrong and all it shows is shoddy journalism.
But more on the research findings in a minute.
Ms Hope also says that the researchers “claim the Roman Catholic Church’s own teaching does not prevent the Pill being used for health reasons.” Well a brief skim of Humanae Vitae, the landmark birth control encyclical, tells you that. It is no revelation – it was written almost 50 years ago. That makes it established teaching, not a “claim”.
Then: “Although Humanae Vitae never mentions nuns, they should be free to use the contraceptive Pill to protect against the hazards of nulliparity.” Well, there’s a reason the papal document never mentions nuns. Nuns are totally irrelevant to the issue of contraception.
As for the research, I do not criticize it, but it is worth putting it in context rather than drawing out a tiny element to be splashed over the front page. Health reports and studies carry their fair share of bandwagon-jumpers so let’s look at it calmly.
The authors analyse breast, ovarian and uterine cancers across a fairly decent number of American women. For ovarian and uterine cancers there is actually more of a risk among the controls, not the nuns, for all the age groups up until 70 years of age.
For the great majority of ages, it is actually less likely that nuns die of those cancers. In fact for ovarian cancer, it’s not until the 80+ age group that deaths are more probable among nuns than other women. And in that category, the nuns really do take over – death is almost three times as likely.
So, it is only breast cancer that carries the significant disparity for most age-groups, but once again it’s not until the category of 70+ that the probability really jumps.
The authors responsibly qualify their research with the statement that individual nuns need to consult their doctors, as each person’s own medical history and conditions may dictate quite different diagnoses and recommendations.
And that’s a good point at which to come to back to the Church. The picture painted implicitly in the report and explicitly by ignorant journalists is that nuns are locked away from medical treatment and need permission to access medicine. Britt and Short say: “the Catholic Church could make the oral contraceptive pill freely available to all its nuns”, which shows a complete misunderstanding of human freedom and specifically the freedom of nuns. Pope Benedict keeps the keys to the kingdom, not the medicine cabinet. News24 has Short saying: "It would be expensive for any nunnery to get the pills, and the Catholic Church should be paying for that." It might be helpful for Short to consider that the Catholic Church and its convents are not akin to a pound or cattery. While claiming his research is favouring nuns, he does not flatter them with his ignorance of their state in life and personal freedom.
Perhaps Julia Medew of the Sydney Morning Herald could help out other health reporters and researchers. She called up the general secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Father Brian Lucas, who had this to say: ''The question of whether nuns are prescribed hormonal medication is entirely a matter between the individual nun and her doctor, taking into account her risk factors and personal health needs. It has nothing to do with any church teaching on contraception.''
It’s amazing what sort of common-sense responses you can obtain when you ask for them.
I had to smile, though, when Short told me that co-author Kara Britt will be going to the Vatican on Sunday next week to present their work at the 10th World Congress of The International Association of Maternal and Neonatal Health. I’d love to be a fly on the wall to watch her reaction when the Vatican official tells her: “Good points – I am sure many of them are aware of that and are getting sound medical advice from their doctors who read your articles.”
At least she will have some extra time to visit the beautiful sights of Rome. Or maybe she could take some pills and pay relief visits to those poor nuns locked away from medical treatment by the evil Vatican empire. Alex Perrottet, an Australian journalist, is contributing editor of Pacific Media Watch at AUT University’s Pacific Media Centre in New Zealand.


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