by Mrs. Parunak
In the twentieth century, society undertook a vast experiment. Women sought to free themselves from the pain, the work, the exhaustion of big families. They took “control” of their biological systems, and in the process, they put all their female organs on the shelf, refusing to breastfeed their children, and even refusing to bear those children in the first place, with the exception of one, or maybe two, when the timing was just right. Later, the small family philosophy was reinforced by the “Population Bomb” scare of the seventies, leading many women to think that having a large family was simply irresponsible. It was the century of birth control and formula feeding, when motherhood was placed in the hands of science, and women were liberated from the chains of their own biology.
But then, after a while, disturbing things began to surface. We discovered that science had not done such a good job at feeding our children. Year after year, new research came out on the miraculous nature of human milk, and slowly the pendulum swung back as more and more women returned to breastfeeding as the very best beginning they could give their babies.
Yet, the other part of the experiment, the part about refusing to bear those babies in the first place, has remained for the most part unquestioned. Sure, there have been a few “religious nuts” here and there who’ve preached that the Bible teaches that children are a blessing, but mainstream science never seemed to back up the idea.
What’s going on, why the turn away from such a treasured idea as birth control? Well, to be blunt, women are dying. Those female organs we put on the shelf turned out not to have quite the shelf life we had assumed. They started to fall apart, victims of cancer. Breast cancer rates are soaring. A 2002 article in New Scientist proclaimed that modern women in the UK were facing breast cancer rates as high as those of childless nuns in the nineteenth century and said,
Western women could reduce their breast cancer risk by nearly 60 per cent if they returned to pre-industrial levels of fertility and breastfeeding….For each child a woman has, her risk of the disease declines by 7.0 per cent. On top of this, for every year that she breast feeds, her risk declines by 4.3 per cent.
Birth control is a strange issue. Like breastfeeding, it’s a matter of health. And for many women, it involves putting chemicals into their bodies, which ought to make us wary enough to talk a lot about it. But it also has to do with marital intimacy, and the highly personal and emotionally charged questions of family size and the timing of births, and because of that, there’s a general reticence to discuss it, a squeamish, hush hush feeling of “whatever you and your husband decide must be fine for you.”
But here and there, I’ve come across these alarming articles, tidbits of indicting information that have led me to the conclusion that birth control is not good for you. I’m of the quiver-full mindset, but I’ll save those “religious nut,” Biblical arguments on the blessings of children for another post. Today, I really just want to share what I’ve learned from a purely health related perspective, the kind of information that should be readily available for everyone to weigh whether or not they’re open to having as many children as God gives them.
You see, the choices we make for how we use our bodies, what we put into them, what we ask them to do day by day, all have an effect on our health. Most of us are used to hearing about how important it is to eat right and exercise. We’re aware of the research that shows that whole grains are better for you than refined flours. We may make the lifestyle choice to buy Wonder bread instead of Aunt Millie’s 100% whole wheat, but at least we don’t get offended at the idea that it should be an informed decision. Same for choosing not to exercise. When you choose not to exercise, you are choosing to put your health at risk. And it’s time we got over the squeamishness and were willing to talk about the fact that when you choose not to have children, you are also choosing to put your health at risk.
So how does this work? Why would a “return to pre-industrial fertility” help save women’s lives? Why is it that any decrease in childbearing, or postponement of childbearing increases your breast cancer risk? It’s because estrogen itself is a carcinogen. Every month a woman has a menstrual cycle, she is exposing herself to estrogen. That’s dangerous any time it happens, but it’s worse if she hasn’t had a full term pregnancy yet. This is why delaying childbearing “until you and your husband have gotten to know each other,” or “until you get your career established,” is actually risky business. The earlier you have your first baby, the lower your breast cancer risk. According to Daniel B. Kopans, M.D., Director of the Breast Imaging Center at Massachusetts General Hospital,
…a woman who has her first full-term pregnancy by the age of 18 has about one-third the risk of developing breast cancer as a woman who has her first full-term pregnancy after age 30.
When a girl reaches puberty, her breasts start to develop, but they don’t actually finish developing until she begins making milk for her first baby. The immature breasts of a woman who has not yet gone through pregnancy and breastfeeding are composed of type 1 and 2 lobules. (A lobule is a milk duct and several milk producing glands around it.) In fact, 70% of this woman’s breast tissue is type 1. Type 1 lobules are the most susceptible to breast cancer. 80% of breast cancers are formed in Type 1 lobules. 10% form in type 2 lobules. When women reach the last eight weeks of their first full term pregnancy, at least 70% of their breast tissue matures to type 3 lobules, and then when they begin nursing, their breasts fill with milk and become type 4 lobules. Type 3 and 4 lobules are cancer resistant. The sooner a woman’s breast tissue matures to type 3 and 4 lobules, the safer she will be from breast cancer because she will have exposed her cancer-vulnerable, immature breasts to fewer menstrual cycles, and therefore fewer onslaughts of estrogen. And the more babies she has, the more lobules will mature. (For more information, click here and read the excellent FAQ.)
But not only do many women delay and/or decrease childbearing, they do so through hormonal contraception (like the Pill), which contains steroidal estrogen. And while it is claimed that estrogen given with progesterone (as it always is in hormonal birth control) is not dangerous, there have been numerous studies linking hormonal contraception with increased breast cancer risk. A Mayo clinic meta-analysis of 23 studies found that 21implied increased risk, and combining the studies gave an estimated 44% increase in pre-menopausal breast cancer risk in women who used the Pill before their first full term pregnancy. The World Health Organization, in its own studies, found the risk to be slightly lower (24%), but still high enough to be scary, to me anyway.
Is it possible that we’re killing ourselves, dying to avoid a large family?
Obviously there are many, many women who struggle with fertility issues, who actually cannot have more children. But this should not stop us from sharing the information on the risks of choosing not to let natural fertility take its course any more than the fact that there are people with medical conditions which prevent them from exercising should stop us from declaring the benefits of exercise for the rest of us. For most human beings, exercise is necessary for good health, and choosing not to exercise because it’s not the lifestyle you want is going to come with health risks. No one minds if we say this. We need to come to the point of being willing to tell the truth about birth control, too. It was a bad experiment. God designed women’s bodies, not for years and years of monthly cycles, but for pregnancy and breastfeeding. And choosing not to have children because it isn’t the lifestyle you want is going to come with health risks.