The ‘bitter pill’ of false liberation

| Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk | December 11, 2017 | 10 Comments

Father Pacholczyk

A major study published on December 7 in the New England Journal of Medicine concludes that hormonal contraception increases the risk of breast cancer for women. The research used all of Denmark as its sample, following nearly 1.8 million Danish women of childbearing age for over a decade.

The study, as described by the New York Times, “upends widely held assumptions about modern contraceptives for younger generations of women,” especially the view that “newer hormonal contraceptives are much safer than those taken by their mothers or grandmothers.” It also establishes that the risk to women increases with longer periods of use. Major media outlets have done their best to minimize the implications of the study and “soften the blow” for the millions who, for decades, have faithfully embraced a “contraceptive mentality.”

This mentality has promoted contraception, especially the Pill, as a path for women to move toward equality with men by enabling them to reap the “benefits” of the sexual revolution.

But Mary Rice Hasson, J.D., director of the Catholic Women’s Forum at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. notes that the reality for women is very different, and “our lived experience has shown that this is a false promise.” Countless women, she emphasizes, have ended up being vulnerable to, and harmed by, the sexual revolution and its promotion of contraception as “the solution.” They have been given a “bitter pill” in the form of the Pill.

In a remarkably prescient passage dating back to July, 1968, Pope Paul VI already foresaw this in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, the momentous and beautiful document explaining not only the moral problems with contraception, but also its devastating effects on men, families and women in particular.

Contraception, he writes, opens a wide and easy road “towards conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality. Not much experience is needed in order to know human weakness, and to understand that men–especially the young, who are so vulnerable on this point–have need of encouragement to be faithful to the moral law, so that they must not be offered some easy means of eluding its observance. It is also to be feared that the man, growing used to the employment of anti-conceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.”

Paul VI offers a profound, but unpopular, observation — that contraception is harmful to women, and is, in fact, anti-woman. The widespread adoption of the “contraceptive mentality” has led inexorably to a new perspective on women, namely, that they should be more like men, and therefore they should, like men, become impregnable, through the ongoing practice of contraception. Very young women, sometimes just entering puberty, are now placed onto regimens of hormonal contraception that can continue for years or even decades. From this perspective, their ability to conceive life becomes tantamount to a malady needing to be remedied, a “defect” that renders them “unequal” to men. Strikingly, though, ever greater numbers of women are discovering an authentic and liberating form of feminism as they come to the awareness that, in the words of Hasson, “we don’t have a design flaw. Being a woman is good… and it’s a wonderful thing.”

Wonderful, too, is that confident feminism and liberating sense of self-control that enables a woman to choose abstinence before marriage, rather than contraception, and, once married, to choose periodic abstinence in agreement with her husband if their circumstances indicate they ought to avoid a pregnancy.

Hormonal contraceptives, meanwhile, throw a wrench into the works on a number of different levels. Beyond setting up a woman to be “used” by men, the Pill (and hormone-releasing IUD’s) cause significant alterations in her delicately-balanced physiology. These include restricting her ability to ovulate, altering her cycles and secretions, and modifying her uterine lining — in effect, forcing her body into a pseudo-pregnant state to exclude the possibility of a real pregnancy. Whenever a woman takes these kinds of steps to disrupt her natural fertility, it should come as little surprise that her body rebels in one fashion or another, including possible weight gain, headaches, depression, and the heightened and well-documented risk of thrombotic stroke, myocardial infarction (heart attack), and — as confirmed by the recent study — breast cancer. A woman’s body doesn’t stand in need of being “fixed” by these powerful drugs that wreak havoc on her biology.

The Church’s ageless but countercultural teaching on contraception respects and uplifts women. It supports them in an authentic feminism that affirms their uniquely important maternal role in family and society, and esteems their fruitfulness in marriage not as a defect, but as a real gift.

Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, MA, and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See

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Category: Making Sense Out of Bioethics

  • Dominic Deus

    Dominic Deus here. “Hogwash, piffle and snot.” That’s what I think of this article by Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. who did post doctoral work at Harvard. Hey, you would think that having that in common, we could throw back some brewskis at the Plow and Star but no, I don’t think that will happen because contraception and endocrinology are *not* neuroscience and his reading of the Denmark study is stuff, fluff and nonsense.

    Here’s what really happened:

    Making use of the enormous Danish database generated by universal healthcare and universal record keeping on every Danish citizen, the researchers made one more noble attempt to answer the question of whether or not oral contraception causes breast cancer. It’s important to understand that the jury has been in and out on this several times but since virtually every woman on earth who has access to hormonal contraception and needs it takes it, there are hundred of millions of women who deserve the best answer we can give them to that question.

    Here are the actual words excerpted from the study as printed in the New England Journal of Medicine on December 7, 2017:

    …approximately 1 extra breast cancer for every 7690 women using hormonal contraception for 1 year.


    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, and this risk increased with longer durations of use; however, absolute increases in risk were small.”


    Small. As in very small. 1 *extra* breast cancer per 7690 woman years of oral contraceptive use. Tiny. Compared to the overwhelming health, marriage, family, social and economic benefits of hormonal contraception, infinitesimal.

    There are no real downsides to fertility control for women and the small risks associated with hormonal contraception are almost invisibly minute compared to the risks of even normal pregnancy and childbirth let alone those of excess pregnancies or pregnancies in women of poor health or high risk.

    It always pains me to cite the screechingly obvious but Mary Rice Hasson, J.D. is a lawyer not a physician. Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. is not a physician either. So here we have two people, unqualified by education or training blissfully broadcasting their understanding of a subject they do not understand, and the latter of whom doesn’t know how to read a study in the New England Journal of Medicine. What could possibly go wrong?

    As a deliverer of several hundred babies and a prescriber of thousands of oral contraceptives, I can tell you without hesitation that contraception is a boon to women. They should use it if they need it. They should advise their daughters to use it.

    Finally, Pope Paul VI was a gentleman scholar born in the 19th century who ignored the advice of his collegium of bishops and didn’t know a thing about women and reproductive health. He led the Church astray on the contraception issue. Forgive him. He was a man of his times. He’s dead now and millions of Catholic men and women are alive and well with healthy children and secure lives, due in no small part to the judicious use of contraception.

    Dominic Deus, M.D.
    Actual Doctor Who Delivers Babies and Prescribes Contraception

    • Charles C.

      Hello, actual doctor using an alias.

      Your response shows how difficult it is to cover many different points in one post. I keep trying, which is why I usually end up writing an essay in the attempt. You don’t have the space to cover the psychological harm done to women and society caused by contraception, let alone get into the spiritual aspects.

      I do wish you were a little less harsh on Fr. Pacholczyk. Among other things, in addition to his Yale Ph.D.:

      “He has taught bioethics classes at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in
      Connecticut, St. John’s Seminary in Boston, and the Catholic University
      of America in Washington, D.C. As an undergraduate Fr. Tad earned
      degrees in philosophy, biochemistry, molecular cell biology, and chemistry, and did laboratory research on hormonal regulation of the immune response.”

      It seems a bit extreme to say he is unqualified and doesn’t understand the subject. At least, I’d like some evidence that he doesn’t. I’m willing to assume that you understand things about the effect of hormonal contraception on breast cancer rates, because you prescribe such contraception, although it is an evolving subject with differing points of view. I’d hate to have to be a physician who keeps up with every aspect of medicine, you must get almost no sleep.

      I understand that the study suggests one extra cancer for every 7690 women who take the pill for one year. Do most women really take the pill for just one year?

      And concerning the “tiny” effect. And here I want you to check my reasoning because my result is surprising.

      The CDC says that breast cancer was diagnosed at the rate of 123.9 per 100,000 people whether they’re taking the pill or not. The study you quote claims 10 – 16 extra cases per 100,000 among those who take the pill for just one year. That would seem to mean that taking the pill adds at least 8-13% to the risk. The study points out that the risk goes up the longer the pill is
      taken. I wonder what it is for a woman who takes it from, say, 18 to 30?

      And again, please check my conclusion, for here I am only guessing. It seems that through your practice, or political beliefs, or personal experience, or for some other reason, you’ve come to believe that the breast cancer risk of the pill is one women should be willing to take in order to be able to prevent pregnancy without the necessity of personal restraint.

      My worry is that there are other costs and risks, as mentioned above, and they are not often taken into account.

      From the article:

      “The study, as described by the New York Times, ‘upends widely held
      assumptions about modern contraceptives for younger generations of women,’ especially the view that ‘newer hormonal contraceptives are much
      safer than those taken by their mothers or grandmothers.’ ”

      Might it be that your assumptions are upended as well?

      • Dominic Deus

        Charles!!! What are YOU doing up this late (or early) on Christmas Day?!?! Shouldn’t you be sleeping with visions of sugars plums dancing in your head?

        I’m up with indigestion, that’s my excuse. I had a combination of shrimp, wild rice soup, chili, homemade Bailey’s (it was to die for), whiskey and seven, cherry cheese cake, apple pie and a Christmas cookie. Just writing about it is making my stomach rumble but it all seemed like a good idea at the time. Which, I admit, raises questions about my judgement.

        In three days I will answer all your questions. 😉 I’m on Christmas break now. later today I will have tea and dry toast.

        • Charles C.

          Dear Dr. Dominic,

          If you were my medical advisor, my abominable sleep would be number six on your list of health concerns about me (by last serious count).

          As you are a dietary expert, and have recently sampled the food in question, I’d like your opinion. Is it true that chili is the perfect food? I’ve forgotten the movie, but a major character gave that praise to chili with vegetables washed down with milk.

          And as long as I’m off the subject of anything even remotely related to the diocese, perhaps you could tell me why nutrition specialists seem to change their minds every couple of years concerning which foods are healthy and which are dangerous.

          They are one of the two groups of scientists which present (to me) the most unshakeable proof that science, at least in some areas, prefers getting into print more than getting it right.

  • Karen A.

    All medications have side effects. This should be no surprise to anyone. I don’t care if it’s NSAID pain relievers, anti-depressants, blood pressure & cholesterol modifiers, steroids, immune system modifiers…..they all have risks and side effects from prolonged use. Yes hormonal BC has side effects. Luckily there are many BC options, including some non-hormonal ones like barriers methods, copper IUD, and yes, fertility awareness method. Women should assess the risks/benefits and choose one that works best for them. Also, I’m annoyed at the statement about contraception increasing the likelihood of infidelity. If the fear of getting pregnant or getting a woman pregnant is the only reason you don’t cheat on your spouse, that you already have moral failings, and I don’t want to be with you. You shouldn’t need fear-based or negative reinforcement training to remain faithful.

    • DebraBrunsberg

      You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to tie together the astronomically high numbers of divorces ending because of adultery or the 40% of births out of wedlock, of soaring STD’s, which are all tied to a sexual permissiveness that has arisen since the proliferation of birth control. Add to that the tens of millions of aborted babies. These are people who are using birth control, which always fails. Birth control is a license to have sex outside of marriage, even if you are in one. That is the truth of what has happened in our society. Women should not be assessing and choosing the best working contraceptive. Using them is showing a moral failing.

      • Dominic Deus

        Dominic Deus here. Debra Dude, you’re back! My Christmas resolution is to stop referring to you as Debra Dude and just accept your gender identification as female. I attended the Transgender Agenda Symposium at St.Thomas hosted by the Heritage Foundation and I realized that I have been blind to by own bias in not respecting your choice to identify as a woman. All the while, I have been insisting that the proper thing to do is to accept, and support gender identity and let the transgender people in your circle of acquaintances know you welcome them. I have been such a hypocrite.

        I, of course, have no idea if your are in a social transition, or an ideological one but either way, I henceforth refer to you as Debra.

        Debra–There is a sharp contrast in style and substance between you and Karen? Can you address that a bit?

        PS: Found a great sundress, pistachio with small pink flowers and string straps that tie in the back–size XXXL–at one of those little boutique shops on Grand Avenue. They have more. Worth a trip. They seem totally cool if you just say your shopping “for a friend.”

    • Dominic Deus

      Dominic Deus here. Thank you Karen. It is always good to hear ( and listen to) the voice of an actual woman on the issue of fertility control by women. Have you heard of my suggestion that all us men should take a vow of silence for 200 years on the matter?

  • Reed

    While the evidence is showing that there is a small increase in risk of breast cancer with use of the contraceptive pill, this article fails to report that use of the birth control pill decreases risk for endometrial and ovarian cancers (reducing more risk than the small increase in breast cancer). Endometrial cancer is more common than breast cancer, and ovarian cancer is often more deadly because there are few warnings until it is advanced. Thus, there are medical arguments on both sides of the issue. Alarmist articles that provide partial information, particularly to buttress an ideology, are not only a disservice to everyone, but unethical. One would think that the author, who supposedly teaches bioethics, would know that.

    • Dominic Deus

      Dominic Deus here–Point well taken, Reed. I respectfully suggest that there are not really two sides to the issue on the value of contraception for women and society; that is pretty much settled hash. On the other hand taking an absolutist position on anything is dangerous to discussion so I salute your wisdom in saying there are “arguments” made from different perspectives. You are so right–and I believe all voices should be heard. Thank you for your post.