Anti-choice advocates have been irresponsibly touting a link between abortion and breast cancer for years. Careless scientists have published questionable studies which anti-choice politicians have used as excuses to pass hostile legislation. Currently Louisiana, Kansas, and Mississippi have bills mandating doctors to warn patients of an increased risk of breast cancer before giving abortions. Enforcement of a similar law in Montana awaits the outcome of litigation.This manipulation of science into scaring women who are already in a difficult situation is not only cruel, but it is scientifically unfounded. What these scholars fail to account for in their analysis is an effect called the “recall bias” which caused healthy women to under-report their abortions, while breast cancer survivors are more likely to report their abortions.
In fact, the early abortion pill mifepristone is showing positive effectsin the treatment of a wide range of life-threatening diseases and medical conditions. Diseases and conditions showing positive reactions to the pill include certain types of breast and ovarian cancers, brain and spinal cord tumors, endometriosis, Cushing’s Syndrome, and HIV. If anti-choice propagandists were truly interested in women’s health, they might better spend their energy and funds on research for this life-saving drug instead of pushing traumatic and medically inaccurate propaganda.
A major study by Joel Brind of Baruch University purports to show a link between breast cancer and abortion using analysis from twenty-eight different reports dated between 1957 and 1996 and required women to report their abortions to the researchers. Brind’s researchers concluded that women who reported at least one abortion had a 30% higher risk of contracting breast cancer. If true, this would mean that 4,700 to 30,000 breast cancer cases diagnosed annually could be attributable to induced abortion. In fact, this study is deeply flawed in its research methodology because of its use of unreliable statistics.
A study done by Lindefors-Harrisin Sweden in 1989 showed that breast cancer patients were 50% more likely to report their abortions than healthy women. This recall bias could explain the findings of previous researchers, and nullify the finding that abortions increased the risk of breast cancer. In a study done in Denmark, researchers eliminated recall bias by using national registries and the Civil Registration System to link the rates of breast cancer in women who had abortions. The findings showed no link between the number of induced abortions, whether or not women had a full-term pregnancy before or after an abortion, or the number of induced abortions. The study did find a link between gestational age and breast cancer only if the abortion was performed after 18 weeks of pregnancy, which was a very small pool of subjects.
The so-called scientific basis for a link between breast cancer and abortion sounds plausible even though it is easily refuted. At conception, progestational hormones are released which cause the milk ducts of the breasts to branch and form terminal end buds, which form the alveolar buds that create the milk-producing glands called acini. This is the period where scientists believe the cells are most likely to be affected by carcinogens. After a full-term pregnancy, hormonal changes occur which reduce the risk of breast cancer.
Karin Michelsof the Harvard School of Public Health summarizes this phenomenon in her report on breast cancer and abortion: “Because pregnancy appears to increase the short-term risk of breast cancer, but to decrease long-term risk, we are interested in whether a prematurely terminated pregnancy might share one or both of these effects. In fact, in appears that there is no overall effect on breast cancer risk from abortions.” In light of the multiple studies finding no conclusive evidence that would show a link between abortions and increased risk of abortion, the recent bills requiring doctors to warn abortion recipients of this link are undoubtedly politically motivated and insensitive to the difficult choices these women are facing.
A report prepared by WCLA college intern, July 2001