Tax-Funded Prayer to “Treat” Breast Cancer (March 2001)

Hundreds of thousands of tax dollars have been approved by the National Institutes of Health to fund a Christian “prayer intervention” study involving African American women with breast cancer.

Freethought Today has learned that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a component of NIH, has approved the grant to Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. Consulting is Dr. Harold Koenig of Duke University’s Center for the Study of Religion, Spirituality and Health, known for his espousal of religion as medicine.

Tax money is slated to fund a study of “a personal and group prayer intervention” on 40 African American women, with 40 others randomly assigned to a control group.

Dr. Koenig told Freethought Today several years of funding are needed because it will take a long time to locate 80 African American women in the Baltimore area who qualify for the study.

Subjects will meet with “Comfort Leaders,”–“a team of African American breast cancer survivors and persons with a background in spirituality” who will receive special training–at a home or “church visit.”

The concept, the grant writers noted, is derived from “The Witness Project,” previously funded in part by the Centers for Disease Control, based on the precept that “in church people witness to save souls. At the Witness Project, they witness to save lives.”

“The CL will meet with the woman and provide her with a small book of inspirations,” according to the study abstract. “She will assist the woman in organizing a prayer group of 5-8 women from her church or from her personal network.”

The subjects will be given “the Comfort Guide that contains 24 weeks of spiritual messages based on Biblical scripture that guide the prayer for any given week. The women will be offered instruction as to how to gather for prayer and personal witnesses. . . . select[ing] a symbolic scriptural word that to them will signify their recognition of a ‘divine presence.’ Twice each day the patient is to use the Centering Prayer word to focus on a feeling of peace and inner spirituality. . . .”

The study abstract mentions the researchers’ concerns that other prayer by the women and their social network could “replicate or compete with the effects of the study’s prayer groups,” but considers this “unlikely.” The study selects otherwise healthy subjects who are most likely to do well–women with early stage breast cancer who have had no spread to lymph nodes and have undergone a lumpectomy and radiation therapy but no chemotherapy (Stage 1 and 2 local tumors).

“Women who do not identify with a religious orientation or who do not wish to use prayer groups will also be excluded. It is expected that this will be a rare case if it does occur at all,” the abstract adds.

Various blood, saliva and urine tests will be taken at intervals of one month and six months to measure “the impact of the prayer intervention” on “stress.” Although it is a four- or five-year funded study, the subjects themselves receive only six months of “intervention.”

They also note that after six months, the control group will be offered the religious materials and an introduction to prayer groups and “centering prayer,” because this “is ethical given the known benefit of prayer. . .”

The grant abstract cites as rationale for the study the “abysmal physical and psychosocial outcomes in African American women with breast cancer and their almost 100% use of prayer for coping.”

The researchers also cite a study showing that a majority of African American women “preferred spiritual healing over traditional allopathic medicine, actually causing a delay in seeking care.”

“This raises a question,” said Freethought Today editor Annie Laurie Gaylor. “If African American women already disproportionately favor prayer and religion for comfort during illness, yet ‘have a poorer prognosis at every stage of breast cancer,’ as the researchers report, then the conclusion would seem to be that religion is detrimental, rather than beneficial. Ethics should dictate that medically sound methods, not superstition, should be proposed to improve medical outcomes for African American women with breast cancer.”

The study does not compare prayer with other activities that could be surmised to reduce stress or make patients feel special, such as instruction in relaxation techniques.

Despite a request on Dec. 1 made under the Freedom of Information Act, Freethought Today has been unable to date to obtain a full copy of the grant proposal detailing requested amounts and salaries. Diane M. Becker, the professor of medicine who is slated to be in charge of the medical monitoring of the women, refused to release that data. She told Freethought Today her best estimate is that approximately $123,000 of tax dollars annually for four years would be appropriated.

An Oct. 5 NIH news release reported that $8 million will be given to a cancer center at Johns Hopkins headed by Adrian S. Dobs, M.D., to implement four projects, one of which “will examine the effects of prayer on disease recurrence, immune and neuroendocrine function of African American women with breast cancer.” What has not been disclosed is how the $8 million grant will be divided among the four studies.

Dr. Koenig estimated late last year in a conversation with Freethought Today that between $750,000 and $800,000 over five years would be appropriated. According to a report inResearch News & Opportunities in Science and Theology, (Nov. 2000) funded through the Templeton Foundation, Dr. Koenig “hopes that research such as this will help open the door to more studies on the effects that prayer may have on other diseases. . .”

Freethought Today is pursuing its Freedom of Information Act request to confirm how much tax money is in jeopardy.

Freedom From Religion Foundation