Catholic nuns should be encouraged to take the oral contraceptive pill to cut their risk of ovarian and uterine cancer, say two Australian cancer experts.
Dr Kara Britt of Monash University and Professor Roger Short of Melbourne University base their advice on a number of longitudinal and epidemiological studies which show that the risk of these cancers is dramatically higher in women who have never had children.
The reason is that such 'nulliparous' women have a greater number of ovulatory menstrual cycles, which tend to stop during pregnancy and lactation.
According to the researchers, the oral contraceptive pill can decrease the risk of developing ovarian and endometrial cancers by 50-60 per cent. This protection persists for 20 years, they say.
"The research clearly indicates that an increased number of cycles increases the odds of reproductive cancer, so not having children, going through puberty early, or menopause later will affect the incidence," says Britt.
"The pill could help manage these risks for nuns."
While you might think that the Catholic church would be a bit sniffy about the idea, there's no doctrinal reason why it should be. While deliberate contraception's off-limits to the faithful, it's fine as a side-effect.
"The Church in no way regards as unlawful therapeutic means considered necessary to cure organic disease, even though they also have a contraceptive effect," wrote Pope Paul VI in the 1968 Humanae Vitae.
"We are recommending the use of the oral contraceptive pill among nuns for health reasons, not contraception, and we believe this falls within the guidelines of the position of the Church," says Britt.
"Making the pill readily available to all nulliparous women, including nuns, will reduce the risks and give their plight the recognition it deserves."