(CBS) Should nuns take birth control pills? A controversial new commentary published Thursday suggests nuns who take birth control will significantly cut their risk of getting cancer.
Why nuns? Nuns are nulliparous, meaning they don't have children. Women who don't have children undergo more menstrual cycles than women who have kids, because they don't get pregnant or breastfeed. More cycles mean more cancer risk, according to the study authors.
The authors said the nearly 95,000 nuns worldwide "pay a terrible price for their chastity," because they face a greater risk for breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers.
"If the Catholic Church could make the oral 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," study authors Dr. Kara Britt of Monash University and Professor Roger Short of the University of Melbourne in Australia, said in a written statement.
For the study, published in the Dec. 8 issue of The Lancet, researchers reviewed birth control studies, and found women who take the pill have a 12 percent lower overall death rate than women who don't. They also found risk of developing ovarian and endometrial cancers fell by up to 60 percent in pill users compared with women who have never taken it. The cancer protection lasted for 20 years, suggesting a clear long-term benefit of taking the pill, the authors said.
The pill isn't totally risk-free. The authors said it can increase risk of blood clots for some women, so past medical histories must be considered before a its prescribed.
The Catholic church condemned all forms of contraception in 1968 under Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae, but the authors said nuns should be exempt because that same 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."
Where did the study authors get the idea that the Catholic church controls nuns' medical care? Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops asks. She told ABC News that nuns have the same access to care that every woman has, which includes the pill.
"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," Walsh told ABC News.
Her take? Suggesting that all nuns should take birth control pills is "rather sweeping and almost irresponsible."
"There are risks with the pill just as there are risks with doing nothing with regard to uterine and ovarian cancer," Walsh said. "A nun's decision needs to be worked out between the nun and her doctor."