Tuesday, April 29, 2008


If you were old enough to be interested in the news in the 1960s, you know the destructive capacity of Thalidomide to unborn babies. Given to pregnant women to stop morning sickness, it produced horrific birth defects including deformities of the arms and legs, as described in this National Toxicology Program report. The word "Thalidomide" still sends shivers of horror down my spine.

The drug is back on the market, but not for pregnant women. I first learned of its use in treating breast cancer. As with most cancer drugs it is used to prevent development of cells, a critical factor in the development of a fetus.

It is being used to treat leprosy as this CNN report indicates. Research is ongoing for its use in treating inflammatory diseases such as arthritis.

The drug, though, is no safer for unborn babies than it was in the 1960's. An article on its use at the Cancerbackup website says:

You must not become pregnant or father a child while taking thalidomide, as it causes severe abnormalities in developing babies. Women will be asked to have a pregnancy test, to check that they are not pregnant. They will also be advised to use a highly effective form of contraception (such as implanted, or injected contraception) as well as a barrier method (such as a condom or cap).

Men taking thalidomide are advised to use a condom during sexual intercourse even if they have had a vasectomy. Both men and women will be asked to use contraception for four weeks before starting treatment and for four weeks after treatment has finished.

Obviously this poses real ethical questions for a married Catholic woman of child-bearing years who has one of the diseases it is used to treat, especially if she is already a mother with an obligation to her living children. Does she reject this treatment, even if it might be the only hope of survival? Does she refuse sexual relations with her husband, thus jeopardizing the marriage? Does she violate the Church's prohibitions and practice birth control?

The same dilemma is presented to a married man, but in his case, there is no upward limit on the need for birth control.

As drugs of this nature are increasingly produced, Catholic morality will not be able to ignore this medical-ethical dilemma for much longer.

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