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Opposing Laws that Require Women Seeking Abortions to be "Informed" of the "Risk" of Breast Cancer

Document Date: February 1, 1997

Opposing Laws that Require Women Seeking Abortions to be “Informed” of the “Risk” of Breast Cancer

The latest “scare tactic” initiated by anti-choice groups is to link abortion to breast cancer. Seizing upon scant evidence in a 1994 research study, they have mounted a vigorous advertising and legislative campaign to convince the public that having an abortion increases a woman’s chance of contracting breast cancer. The study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI), (1) reported a small statistical connection between abortion and breast cancer. Although cancer research experts have characterized the study as inconclusive and methodologically problematic, anti-abortion activists have eagerly wielded it as a new way to frighten women and restrict their reproductive choices.

Opponents of choice have persuaded legislators in several states to introduce or enact bills that require physicians to inform women seeking abortions that abortion increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Since this “warning” directly contradicts expert medical research, it can only be viewed as a politically inspired scare tactic; it is not motivated by a genuine concern for women’s health. Here are some “talking points” that you can use to oppose such requirements when they are proposed as freestanding bills or as specific provisions in broader biased counseling bills (deceptively labeled by their anti-choice sponsors, “Informed Consent” or “Women’s Right to Know” bills):

  • The National Cancer Institute has charged that the study has been interpreted inaccurately and “[t]here is no evidence of a direct relationship between breast cancer and either induced or spontaneous abortion.”(2)
  • The American Cancer Society has concluded, “the inconsistencies of existing research do not permit definitive scientific conclusions.”(3)
  • On the day the study was published, JNCI printed an editorial stating that “the overall results [of the study] as well as the particulars are far from conclusive, and it is difficult to see how they will be informative to the public.” The study was particularly criticized because of the methodological problem of possible inaccurate reporting of a history of abortion by participants.(4)
  • Four recent reviews published in scientific journals have assessed more than 30 studies and concluded that the available data on the relationship between induced or spontaneous abortions and breast cancer are inconclusive.(5)
  • A 1995 article in Cancer Causes and Controls reported on “Abortion and Breast Cancer Causes in Seven Countries.” The study concluded, “In summary, these data suggest that any overall relation between abortion and risk of breast cancer is likely to be weak at most.”(6)
  • A 1996 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association evaluating the association between pregnancy terminations and risk of breast cancer concluded, “Our data suggest that the risk of breast cancer associated with any pregnancy termination is likely to be small, if it exists at all.”(7)
  • The California Medical Association convened a task force to review all of the literature on abortion and breast cancer. The task force found the evidence to be inconclusive. “Some studies reported an adverse effect, some no effect, and some a positive effect. . . . [E]vidence is insufficient to support claims that induced abortion has an effect on the later development of breast cancer.” This position was adopted by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).(8)
  • A widely noted 1997 study of more than 1.5 million women in Denmark, where abortion histories are corroborated by a government sponsored medical registry, and no chance of reporting bias exists, concluded that “induced abortions have no overall effect on the risk of breast cancer.” In a New England Journal of Medicine editorial accompanying the Danish research, Dr. Patricia Hartge of the National Cancer Institute said of the study, “[It] provides important new evidence to resolve a controversy that previous investigations have been unable to settle. . . . In short, a woman need not worry about the risk of breast cancer when facing the difficult decision of whether to terminate a pregnancy.”(9)

Notes:

(1) Janet R. Daling, Kathleen E. Malone, Lynda F. Voigt, Emily White, and Noel S. Weiss, “Risk of Breast Cancer Among Young Women: Relationship to Induced Abortion,” Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Vol. 86, No. 21, November 2, 1994.

(2) National Cancer Institute, Department of Health and Human Services, Risk of Breast Cancer Associated with Abortion, Washington, DC, February 13, 1996.

(3) American Cancer Society, “Abortion and Breast Cancer” Fact Sheet, Document 002039, January 5, 1996.

(4) Lynn Rosenberg, “Induced Abortion and Breast Cancer: More Scientific Data Are Needed,” Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Vol. 86, No. 21, November 2, 1994.

(5) Supra note 2; Karin B. Michels and Walter C. Willett, “Does Induced or Spontaneous Abortion Affect the Risk of Breast Cancer?,” Epidemiology, Vol. 7, No. 5, September 1996. A contrasting opinion is offered by Joel Brind, Vernon M. Chinchilli, Walter B. Severs, Joan Summy-Long, “Induced Abortion as An Independent Risk Factor for Breast Cancer: A Comprehensive Review and Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Vol. 50, No. 5, October 1996.

(6) Karin B. Michels, Chung-cheng Hsieh, Dimitrios Trichopoulos, and Walter C. Willett, “Abortion and Breast Cancer Risk in Seven Countries,” Cancer Causes and Controls, Vol. 6, 1995.

(7) Polly A. Newcomb, Barry E. Storer, Matthew P. Longnecker, Robert Mittendorf, E. Robert Greenberg, and Walter C. Willett, “Pregnancy Termination in Relation to Risk of Breast Cancer,” Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 275, No. 4, January 24, 1996.

(8) “Statement on Links Between Induced Abortion and Subsequent Breast Cancer,” ACOG Newsletter, September 1995.

(9) Mads Melbye, Jan Wohlfahrt, Jorgen H. Olsen, Morten Frisch, Tine Westergaard, Karin Helweg-Larsen, and Per Kragh Andersen, “Induced Abortion and the Risk of Breast Cancer,” New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 336, No. 2, January 9, 1997.

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