Despite undisputed scientific evidence that has been available for years, most American women are unaware oral contraceptives increase a woman’s risk for breast cancer and other illnesses, according to a new poll

A female breast cancer surgeon, a nurse and a moral theologian are among those calling on Congress to ensure that women are warned of the risks, perhaps through the same sort of campaign attached to cigarette use and evidence that it increases the risk of cancer. 

“When women are aware of the risks, it does change their behavior,” said Dr. Angela Lanfranchi, a surgeon and co-director of the breast care program at The Steeplechase Cancer Center in Somerville, N.J., in a teleconference last month organized by Human Life International America marking “50 years of the pill in America.” The Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral contraceptive in 1960, and today birth control pills are used by an estimated 12 million American women

Pill’s prevalence 

According to the new poll, commissioned by HLI America and conducted in an online survey by inc./WomanTrend, a privately held, woman-owned polling company, 54 percent of women said that “use of the pill for pregnancy prevention would not be worth it if there is a definite link between use of hormonal birth control and cancer.” But nearly a third said the risk would be worth it to prevent pregnancy. 

The poll found a majority of women think the pill and other forms of hormonal contraceptives are a positive influence in society; a smaller number believe hormonal contraceptives have helped improve marriages and relationships. It also found most women started taking the pill at age 18 or younger. A full 35 percent of the women polled were currently on hormonal contraceptives; 43 percent said “they had in the past but no longer do.” Only 19 percent of women polled had never taken any type of oral contraceptive. Women on hormonal contraceptives are more likely to be single than married. Any kind of religious affiliation, including Catholicism, did not seem to matter between those who took oral contraceptives and those who did not (see sidebar below). 

The poll, involving 800 women between the ages of 15 and 44, listed six possible side effects of taking birth control, but Kellyanne Conway, president and CEO of the polling company, said “no one single response was cited by a majority of responses as something they had heard or learned.” Nearly half knew about possible weight gain, 40 percent were aware of possible blood clots and the risk of stroke, 23 percent mentioned headaches, and just 19 percent knew about an increased risk of breast cancer. 

Contraceptives’ risk 

During the teleconference, Lanfranchi noted the number of breast cancer cases among women has gone up 660 percent since the 1970s, according to records kept by the National Cancer Institute, especially in pre-menopausal breast cancer. 

And at least to scientists, the link between oral contraceptives and breast cancer is no secret. Mayo Clinic proceedings reported in 2006 that women who use hormonal contraceptives for a minimum of four years before having their first full-term pregnancy have a 52 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer. In “Oral Contraceptive Use and Breast Cancer Risk: Current Status,” Dr. James R. Cerhan wrote, “One might have thought that the issue of whether oral contraceptives (OCs) are associated with breast cancer risk would have been settled by now, given that these agents were introduced in the early 1960s and more than 60 case-control and 10 cohort studies, several meta-analyses, a very large pooled analysis, and a major monograph have addressed this issue. 

“On the basis of the accumulated data, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified oral estrogen-progestogen contraceptives [like the pill] as carcinogenic to humans (group 1 carcinogen) in 2005, which is a higher classification than the 1999 IARC evaluation.” 

Cigarettes and asbestos are in the same group as risks for lung cancer. 

Jenn Giroux, a registered nurse and executive director of HLI America, said she’s alarmed at the increase in birth control advertising aimed at young people, and hopes “congressional hearings [will] force the same criteria to drive these off the airways, the same as cigarettes,” in the next few years. 

Janet E. Smith, author and speaker on sexuality, bioethics and contraception, and professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, told Our Sunday Visitor she believes if parents knew the link between breast cancer and the use of contraception among young women and those who have never given birth, “they would not supply contraceptives to their teenagers.” 

“And how can a teenager not take the provision of contraception as approval for fornication?” said Smith. 

It is estimated that between 80 percent and 85 percent of American Catholics use some type of contraceptive.  

Smith believes that’s due to years of bad teaching, but “if people heard someone like Dr. Angela Lanfranchi explain why the hormones in the pill make a woman’s breasts more susceptible to cancer, many would find another means of family planning.” 

Giroux said “ignoring the facts does not decrease the breast cancer risk,” and she finds it “boggling” as a registered nurse and mother that hormonal contraception is so readily prescribed to women, particularly considering usage typically lasts many years, which largely increases health risks. 

“If women have the information,” Giroux said, “they are intelligent enough to make good health decisions.” 

Julie Robison writes from Ohio.

The Numbers (sidebar)

The poll also found: 

◗ Women who knew someone affected by breast cancer were no more likely than those who did not to have been told about the increased risk for breast and ovarian cancers (20 percent and 18 percent, respectively). 

◗ A majority of women aged 18-24 were warned about mood swings and emotional changes, including the risk of depression (52 percent) or the potential for weight gain (53 percent), but only 24 percent were informed about augmented cancer threats. 

◗ According to some research, long-term use of hormonal birth control increases the odds of having breast cancer. Notably, women who have been on the pill or another form of hormonal birth control were no more aware of the breast cancer consequences than those who have been on it for shorter lengths of time.

Catholic Facts (sidebar)  

The poll revealed that, of the Catholics participants, there is not a significant difference between those who attend Mass frequently and those who do not. 

Of those polled, 30 percent of practicing Catholics currently take hormonal contraceptives, 52 percent have used it in the past and 18 percent have never taken it. 

For inactive Catholics, 36 percent currently use it, 48 percent have used it in the past and 15 percent have never used it. 

Catholics made up 25 percent of total women polled — roughly the proportion of Catholics as a whole in American society.