The Economist on birth control for nuns

He believed, he said, in birth-control. Pickerbaugh answered with theology, violence, and the example of his own eight beauties.

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (1924)

Christmas comes but once a year, but reporters don’t always have to wait until December 25 for their presents. Great stories, items that seem to write themselves, can appear at any time of the year. A report in the British medical journal, The Lancet, released on December 8 and entitled “The plight of nuns: hazards of nulliparity” is just such an early Christmas gift for reporters on a short deadline.

The Telegraph and the Guardian provide good examples of the first day coverage — smart and concise summaries of the claims made by the article.  Religious Affairs Editor Martin Beckford of the Telegraph (one of the best religion writers in the UK) has a wonderful lede sentence for his story entitled: “Nuns should go on the Pill, says Lancet study.”

A paper in The Lancet claims that Roman Catholic nuns pay a “terrible price for their chastity”, as not having babies puts them at greater risk of breast, ovarian and uterine tumours.

Health Editor Sarah Boseley of the Guardian covered the story equally well and opened with:

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.

Each gives a straight forward, uncluttered summary of The Lancet article’s claims. Both have strong pull quotes, and their stories could well be swapped between papers. Martin writes:

“Although Humanae Vitae never mentions nuns, they should be free the use the contraceptive pill to protect against the hazards of nulliparity [never giving birth] 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’.

“If the Catholic church could make the 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.” … It goes on: “Today, the world’s 94,790 nuns still pay a terrible price for their chastity because they have a greatly increased risk of breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers: the hazards of their nulliparity.”

The second day stories fleshed out the issues, offering scientific critiques of the research and alternative voices. A story from the Catholic News Agency that a number of other sources drew upon  cited one oncologist who said the study had more political significance than scientific value. The CNA led with this critique.

Karen Brauer, president of Pharmacists for Life International, said the argument was so poorly made that she initially thought the article was a parody.

“It’s that bad,” she told CNA on Dec. 8, adding that the claims were not only outlandish but unsupported by the evidence presented in the analysis.

However, the best of the second day stories was Katie Moisse’s piece for ABC News, “Should Nuns Take the Pill for Health Reasons?” In addition to giving a crisp recounting of the article, she did that extraordinary thing of asking a nun what she thought of all this. And by concentrating on the basics of reporting, came up with a superior story.

…  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.

This is a great rejoinder to The Lancet piece as Sr. Mary Ann Walsh challenges several premises of the article — that the Vatican micromanages nuns’ health care choices or that nuns are forbidden to take the pill. It further raises the question whether the pill is a contraceptive device if it is taken by those living under a vow of celibacy.

I would contrast the ABC story with the treatment by The Economist. That story, entitled “Nuns and contraception: Praying for the Pill,” strikes me as having an adolescent tone. While the Telegraph and Guardian avoided commentary and reported on the facts and ABC provided context, The Economist story seemed un-serious. It is little more than a bilious anti-Catholic rant.

It opens with a discussion of contraception, turns to politics, and opines on whether the church will give nuns the pill.

The Catholic church condemns all forms of contraception, a policy that Paul VI laid out in detail in Humanae Vitae in 1968. Over the subsequent decades it has had various brawls with secular authorities over the use of birth control pills. Most recently, America’s bishops have fought to keep Barack Obama’s health law from providing contraception free. The church has already won an exemption for women who work for a church, but it also wants to keep coverage from women who work for any Catholic institution, even if the women in question are not Catholics and the institution has a secular purpose, such as a school, say, or hospital. Given all this, it would seem unlikely that the church would want to give the Pill to its nuns.

It recounts the arguments of The Lancet story and closes with a smirk.

The Pill can help to counteract [the risks of cancer]. The overall mortality in women who use, or have used, oral contraception, is 12% lower than among those who do not. The effect on ovarian and endometrial cancer is greater: the risk of such cancers plummets by about 50%. Drs Britt and Short make a compelling medical case. But it is unlikely to sway the Church.

What was that about the Vatican not micromanaging the health care of nuns?

Yes, birth-control and the Catholic Church is a controversial issue, and the church should not be above criticism for its views. However, if you are advancing an argument supported by an attitude of condescension towards your target you had better be right. Otherwise you come off the fool — as The Economist appears to have done in this story.

<a href="Ryan Rodrick Beiler / <a href=&quot

;">“>Images courtesy of Shutterstock.

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About geoconger
  • liberty

    Have any journalists ever taken the time to actually real Humanae Vitae? It’s not long, and it an easy read.

    Of course, if journalists ever read Humanae Vitae they will learn it includes this under the heading ‘Lawful Therapeutic Means’ “the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever”

    One would imagine that if the journalists actually read Humanae Vitae it would just ruin their ‘big bad mean Vatican is very bad because of their hatred of birth control’ standing plot lines.

  • Martha

    Okay, this is probably Too Much Information, but I’m not a nun. However, my gynaecologist said that if I were not peri-menepausal, he’d prescribe me the pill – for the same reasons as the article mentions, namely the increased risk of some cancers plus other problems. Mind you, I’ve managed to make it this far without going on any forms of artificial contraception (which he found very hard to get his head around, to the point that he delicately tried to find out if I actually knew how babies were made) :-)

    Here’s a shocker, guys: if it’s for genuine health reasons and not contraception by the back door, there’s no reason a faithful Catholic woman can’t go on the pill. What these headline writers (and I know those are not the same as the journalists) are waiting for, with their tongues hanging out, is the opportunity to say “Vatican legalises Pill!!!!!”

    Not going to happen – not for contraceptive purposes, anyway.

  • Dave

    It further raises the question whether the pill is a contraceptive device if it is taken by those living under a vow of celibacy.

    Precisely the point. “The Pill” is a collection of chemicals. Whether it is a contraceptive depends on the context in which it is taken. If the Vatican does not assign a moral taint to the chemicals, why should some journalists?

  • Jerry

    Evident bias such as the one you excoriate here makes me appreciate why Deacon John M. Bresnahan is grumpy about the media coverage of religion and especially the Catholic church.

  • Larry “the Grump” Rasczak

    “The overall mortality in women who use, or have used, oral contraception, is 12% lower than among those who do not. ”

    Really? I thought the overall mortality rate in women (and men ) was 100%! This is sort of a shocker! The pill confers imortality on 12% of the women who take it?

    Or could it be that it should have said ” “The overall CANCER mortality rate in women who use, or have used, oral contraception, is 12% lower than among those who do not. ”

    I’m not just being a snark here. The point is “you have to die of SOMETHING, sooner or later”. Giving someone a treatement so that they, over the long term, have a 12% lower chance of dying of X just means they are 12% less likely to die of X over the long term… Y, Z, and W are still out there and one of them is going to get all of us sooner or later. This isn’t like giving up smoking where it is well demonstrated that it takes years off your life. As I understand it this slightly just lowers the long term incidence of one particualar cause of death, it doesn’t seem to add to longevity as a whole… so to a degree I question the point.

  • Chris

    One of the major problems with the reporting of the Lancet article (beside the fact it is behind a pay wall) is that it is NOT a scientific report–it is a comment. Not a report of new findings, but an editorial supported by research literature. What is missed, although it is alluded to in the ABC report, is that there are BOTH risks and benefits to the use of oral contraceptives as prophylaxis against breast/ovarian cancer. The Lancet piece would have been more compelling if it had been a study of cost effectiveness, taking into account the expected incidences of cancer with and without oral contraceptives, and weighing this against the costs of many years of treatment (with associated side effects–including risks of thrombosis) vs. the costs of breast/ovarian cancer. Alas, as with many features about screening for and prophylaxis against cancer, the fear of the diagnosis trumps everything. There is always a small risk associated with screening and prophylaxis. Some percent of individuals will have side effects due to screening/prophylaxis–even if they wouldn’t have developed the disease. So for them there was no benefit, just harm. It’s also important to know the absolute risk of the disease being screened for in the population, and how effective the screening/prophylaxis will be. This type of analysis has resulted the recent retreat from previous recommendations for nearly universal PSA screening for older men, and the prolonged use of estrogen in post-menopausal women. Discussing these issues is mental hard work though, and it’s easier to just write something fluffy about how nuns need contraception.

  • Clement Williams

    The Lancet and for that matter, no medical or other research publication has done any study about ‘Fear of Death’. To the best of my understanding, the basis of belief in God in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is that the Body is mortal but the Soul is Immortal. The nuns mentioned in this article and in the comments, are nuns because they have chosen their vocation because of their belief in Eternal Life of their souls and the body is indeed disposable. The fear of death of the body is therefore irrelevant for most nuns and priests who have chosen chastity. I, neither a priest, nor a nun, do believe in immortality and for me, the shedding of my body would be a relief.

    In a lighter vein, I imagine and contemplate an eternal life free of lawyers, accountants, tax collectors, Presidents, Senators, Congressmen, doctors sticking fingers and other things in my orifices, and imagine the relief at eating whatever I want without worrying about my cholesterol and the myriad other diseases.

  • Julia

    This is so funny. Dave is right. It isn’t just “the Pill”; it is a dose of progesterone and estrogen that might have purposes other than birth control. Those hormones just happen to already be packaged in handy little pills.

    Another glaring example of this kind of thinking: is the Catholic Church against gays using condoms? In this situation it has nothing at all to do with prevent pregnancy. Doh.

  • Martha

    “(I)s the Catholic Church against gays using condoms?”

    Oh, dear, Julia: this brings me back to 2010, the new book of conversations between Peter Seewald and Pope Benedict XVI, and one excerpt which had the headlines blaring that the Vatican (or the Pope) okays condom use to prevent AIDS.

    It was presented as a U-turn from his comments on condom use (alone or primarily) being pushed in AIDS prevention in Africa, and some outlets were optimistic in floating the notion that maybe contraceptive use would be okayed for everyone.

    What the Pope actually said was something slightly different:

    “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.”

    The interviewer asked the Pontiff, “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?”

    The Holy Father replied, “She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”

  • Julia


    I think in the context of Benedict’s statements in that interview/book, they were talking about male-female sex – the kind where somebody can get pregnant.

    But when referring to gay sex, what is left unsaid is that in gay sex, it’s the activity itself that the church sees as sinful; condom use doesn’t figure into the ethics of the situation and is neutral – unless it does show concern about disease and then it’s a positive action even if gay sexual activity itself is seen as a negative. With heterosexual marital interaction, it’s the blocking of life the church sees as sinful, not marital heterosexuality.

    A condom is not sinful in itself; it’s how it is used that may be problematic.

    Same for the tablets containing progesterone and estrogen; it’s how they are used that may be a problem. E.g. since the early 1960s such a medication has been prescribed for severe acne with no censure from the Church.

    It’s like thinking of hamburgers as evil.
    Overindulging is a problem due to cholesterol and weight gain, but the hamburger itself is not evil.

  • o.h.

    “Nuns should be given the contraceptive pill…”

    It’s this opening sentence of the Guardian story that really grates. Imagine substituting any other class of adults in that sentence: “Teachers should be given the contraceptive pill…”; “Union members should be given the contraceptive pill…”; “Housewives should be given the contraceptive pill…”

    It just drips with offensive paternalism. That such a lede could pass under the eyes of presumably several people who thought it was just fine tells you all you need to know about how the Catholic Church, and consecrated religious within it, are viewed by the media.

  • Hector

    Re: But when referring to gay sex, what is left unsaid is that in gay sex, it’s the activity itself that the church sees as sinful; condom use doesn’t figure into the ethics of the situation and is neutral – unless it does show concern about disease and then it’s a positive action even if gay sexual activity itself is seen as a negative

    Serious question: does the Catholic Church have a position on contraception use by heterosexual, unmarried couples? I.e. yes I know that they hold that unmarried people shouldn’t be having sex ANYWAY, but I’m curious to know if they have a position on whether the use of the Pill and/or condoms is an additional sin, given that the unmarried sex is already happening. (Or is it neutral, or even a positive, as it would be for the gay couple?)

    I’m not Roman Catholic, of course, so it’s not really my debate to enter, but I’m curious just as an intellectual matter (and I’ve actually heard conflicting answers to that question from very orthodox Catholic friends of mine).

    Re: E.g. since the early 1960s such a medication has been prescribed for severe acne with no censure from the Church.

    Yeah, I’ve been told (though I don’t know the accuracy of the story) that the Catholic church sometime in the late ’60s allowed Catholic nuns in war-torn regions of the Congo to go on the birth control pill. This was in a time and place in which those nuns were very likely to be raped, and since any sexual activity that those nuns might be having would be forcible and unintended, the church presumably decided that such a use of the pill would not be contraceptive by intent, even though it would be contraceptive in fact. That seems like an eminently reasonable decision to make, given their premises.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Hector, I think you are asking the wrong kind of question. Rather than looking for rules that cover this or that situation (which we do, of course, as needed), we should be looking to a humanization of sexuality (thank you, Martha, for the quote) as the source for finding moral answers.

    The Catholic objection to artificial contraception is that it separates the sexual act from the possibility of procreation, making that act, in essence, less than fully human.

    And good for ABC News (not usually a favorite of mine) for the quote from Sr. Mary Ann Walsh. Her comments are an important contrast to idiocy like:

    If the Catholic church could make the contraceptive pill freely available to all its nuns…

    And this:

    America’s bishops have fought to keep Barack Obama’s health law from providing contraception free.

    Is that accurate? Are the contraceptives free? Or are we being forced to pay for them through taxes and required insurance premiums? Will diocesan budgets be tapped for required participation in objective evil?

    And to repeat the first comment above: read Humanae Vitae before you attempt to discuss Catholic doctrine on contraception.

  • Sr Rose

    The teaching of the Church is that artificial birth control in marriage is immoral because it prevents the procreation of children, which along with the mutual sanctification of husband and wife, make up the dual purpose of marriage.

    It is ridiculous to think that the Church would deny “the Pill” to women religious because the teaching does not apply: women religious or nuns are not married so use of “the Pill” would obviously be for other reasons. Even married women can use it if the reason is not to regulate pregnancy but for the woman’s health – if the benefit outweighs the risk because birth control pills have terrible side effects that no one really wants to talk about (birth defects, miscarriage, blot clots to mother and baby, high blood pressure, and on and on)

    In 1993 The Vatican released a statement (or two) saying that women religious in Bosnia could take “the Pill” to prevent pregnancies because of the many rapes of nuns and other women that were happening.

    Please read HUMANAE VITAE. Irresponsible journalists … are not really journalists at all.

  • enness

    “the institution has a secular purpose, such as a school, say, or hospital”

    Any Catholic organization does not have a ‘secular purpose’! Its purpose is to do works of mercy for the greater glory of God! If the media don’t get that, how are they supposed to get anything else? Humph. ‘Secular purpose,’ indeed.

  • Mary@42

    The secular media is always looking for any strand of twisted logic to to any subject to blast the Catholic Church. In all my 73 years, I have never heard that Catholic Nuns are dying in their thousands because of celibacy and so they must be permitted by Vatican to take the Pill. The question does not even arise because the whole theory is based on unsubstantiated scientific facts. Please my Dear Secular Media, leave my beloved One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church alone.