Catholic doctors, scientists warn of pill’s harmful effects
Certain voices have been propagating the narrative that hormonal contraception has health benefits beyond pregnancy prevention. While we do not pretend to know their motives for doing so, we do want to share our judgment on the scientific merit of such assertions.
We Catholic health care providers and biological scientists are motivated to speak to you, the people of the church, by our desire for the truth. You have not been adequately informed of the health risks from contraceptive hormones. In the last decade, these risks have become only more evident, with important new and increasingly substantial findings.
The World Health Organization lists combined oral contraception (containing estrogen and progestin) as a group 1, or “carcinogenic to humans,” cancer-causing agent. While this does not imply that this type of hormonal contraception (HC) is as likely to cause cancer as the most risky group 1 carcinogens, this is the group with the strongest evidence for carcinogenicity and includes asbestos, radon and tobacco.
Let’s break this down.
In a study involving 1.8 million women, the New England Journal of Medicine last Dec. 7 published that “the risk of breast cancer was higher among women who currently or recently used contemporary hormonal contraceptives than among women who had never used hormonal contraceptives,” including the levonorgestrel IUD, by 20 percent. HC risk is particularly concerning for the aggressive and difficult to treat triple negative breast cancer. In a study by the National Cancer Institute and others published in 2009, women with triple negative breast cancer were 150 percent more likely to have taken oral contraception (OC) for at least a year; and this risk rose to 320 percent for those 40 years old or younger. Remember that mammograms are not generally done in that younger age group. The introduction of HC in 1960 may help explain part of the striking increase in breast cancer that has occurred in our society since that time.
It has been well known for a number of years that OC raises the risk of cervical cancer. What is perhaps not well known is the striking aggravation of risk the longer OC is taken. OC for five years raises the risk by 10 percent; OC for 10 years raises the risk 120 percent. OC increases cervical cancer, even when the number of partners is taken into account.
HC is thought to increase certain types of cancer, because hormones stimulate those types of cells to grow, and cancer is uncontrolled cell growth.
You may know someone who had a blood clot on the pill. Leg and lung blood clots are increased 100 percent by OC. This is partially because estrogen stimulates the liver to produce more clotting factors. A more worrisome complication, though not as common in young women, was shown in the 2012 New England Journal of Medicine study involving 1.6 million women, showing a 30 to 130 percent increase in heart attacks and strokes with HC, including the vaginal ring.
By personal experience, you have likely observed that hormones can affect your thoughts. We want to share important recent information about the effects of the powerful prescription hormones in HC upon our young people. The psychiatric journal of the American Medical Association (AMA) in 2016 stated that “use of hormonal contraception, especially among adolescents, was associated with subsequent use of antidepressants and a first diagnosis of depression.” This study involved one million females aged 15 to 34 years, with no previous psychiatric history. The risk of depression was generally increased 23 percent; but for adolescents in particular, it was increased 80 percent. HC risk extends to suicide. A study of nearly half a million women and girls in the journal of the American Psychiatric Association this year found that HC, including the vaginal ring and patch, increases suicide 208 percent. So it appears that HC not only makes depression more common, but also makes it more severe.
Claims of HC health benefit are not backed by strong evidence
The AMA states that a randomized trial is the best way to prove the health benefits of a treatment. Yet, contraception’s most famous physician proponents, in their best claim of a noncontraceptive health benefit — that of preventing ovarian cancer — have no randomized studies among the 25 cited to back up their claim.
Numbers are important. All other things considered, the more subjects in a study, the more you can trust its results. In the AMA psychiatric journal, a review of 13 studies published since 1995, looking at the HC-depression link showed that all of the studies not showing a link had less than 10,000 subjects; on the other hand, all of the studies larger than that showed the HC-depression link.
Things to think about
When deciding whether to recommend a treatment, a provider weighs its benefits versus its risks, and considers alternative therapies. The evidence for HC health benefit is weaker than has been implied, its health risks are real and there are ways other than HC to prevent pregnancy. Websites with alternatives for pregnancy prevention are listed below.
Most other medical treatments aim to fix something in the body that is broken; HC disrupts the normal behavior of a healthy bodily function. It stands to reason that bodily disruption, more so than disease treatment, is likely to have unwanted side effects. Considering recent scientific evidence, we find it remarkably prescient what Pope St. John Paul II, when he was still a bishop, said in 1960: “Contraceptives are of their very nature harmful to health.”
Alternatives for spouses seeking to prevent pregnancy