By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
I was pleasantly surprised earlier this summer when I saw confirmed in the prestigious journal Scientific American (May 2019) something I had often heard from some Catholics: namely, the hormonal contraceptives that our society offers millions of women have a rather dubious origin and an even more questionable future.
In an age like ours, I should be prudent when writing about such an issue. And so, dear reader, I promise to do my very best to go no further than the author of the article I read in Scientific American. It was written by Virginia Sole-Smith, who, according to her biography at the beginning of the article, is “a journalist who writes about feminism, body image and health for the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, Elle and many other publications.” (34). In what follows, I try to present significant points from her article.
Sole-Smith writes with some indignation about the cultural and clinical ignorance affecting women’s health, particularly with regard to menstruation. Senior Editors Clara Moskowitz and Jen Schwartz, who introduce the article by Sole-Smith, summarize her piece by saying, “Having periods is not a disease. But when they go wrong, they offer clues into disorders that require intervention. The medical field has largely done a poor job of identifying and treating them with precision. Clinicians tend to wield synthetic hormones like a hammer, liberally prescribing the birth-control pill for all kinds of pain – which is partly why serious diseases of the female organs such as endometriosis take an average of eight years to be diagnosed.” (31).
How did we arrive to a situation where relatively little is known about menstruation and where pills are too quickly prescribed to control it? Sole-Smith explains, “By the late 1950s research around menstruation had shifted to center almost entirely on preventing unplanned pregnancies” (35). Thus, research shifted to correspond with social concerns. Initially, the researchers studied a small group of American women, but then they went “to Puerto Rico to run the first large-scale trial of the drug that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would approve in 1960 as the first oral contraceptive. They recruited 265 Puerto Rican women, many of them poor, to the study without the level of ‘informed consent’ required today.” The results were not promising: “Twenty-two percent of the participants dropped out after reporting side effects such as nausea, dizziness, headaches and vomiting. The study’s medical director argued that the pill ‘caused too many side reactions to be generally acceptable.’ Nevertheless, it went to market.” (35). As Sole-Smith notes, the pill was celebrated as a watershed for women’s liberation. “But liberation came with a price. By the late 1960s patients across the U.S. were reporting the same symptoms documented during the Puerto Rican trial. Despite many reformulations over the ensuing decades, side effects remain a problem for many women on the pill; risks for breast cancer, blood clots and stroke may also be higher.” (35).
The risks may be even higher whenever the pill is prescribed in order to suppress a women’s cycle indefinitely. As Sole-Smith states, we do not know what the consequences are for women who fill their bodies with synthetic hormones for extended periods of time: “Nobody knows for sure what that exposure to synthetic hormones will mean long term for women using the pill to suppress their cycles indefinitely.” Citing a certain researcher, she writes, “Kissling says, ‘What we have now’ with women using birth control for long-term suppression ‘is the largest uncontrolled medical experiment on women in history.’” (40).
Moreover, turning the pill into a mainstream cultural right missed an opportunity for women’s health: for, “scientists figured out how to supplant periods long before they began trying to understand why they work the way they do.” (35-36). This is, I think, an example of how science and technology get into trouble when they are mixed with the winds of a momentary ideology. Obviously, I’m not a doctor, but I do know serious doctors who are suspicious of hormonal contraceptives, and who, more positively, are filled with genuine wonder when studying the female body and its reproductive systems. Some of these doctors have been diligently researching this aspect of women’s health for decades at the Saint Paul VI Institute in Omaha, NE, when much of the scientific community had lost interest. From what I have read and heard of their work, there are real scientific, medical and personal rewards for exploring this research.
If someone is skeptical that this negative light on contraception sounds too convenient, since it is coming from a Catholic priest, I would respond by saying that I cite here Scientific American – hardly a journal of ultra-conservative Catholics! Moreover, there are other secular organizations interested in this precisely because it is a women’s issue, not a Catholic issue. See, for example, www.iirrm.org, www.naturalwomanhood.org, or www.factsaboutfertility.org (Facts About Fertility will even have a conference in Dallas on October 12). Admittedly, I do take a particular interest in the matter as a Catholic, since I find it an edifying thought that Catholic faith and moral teaching actually correspond with the natural good of our bodies.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.