Newspaper Claims Abortion Triples Breast Cancer Risk

The claim that abortion causes breast cancer is simply won't die, despite much evidence to the contrary. This week's culprit (of course) is the Daily Mail.

Allow us to consider Simon Caldwell's scare piece point-by-point. He writes,

An abortion can triple a woman's risk of developing breast cancer in later life, researchers say. [...]

While concluding that breastfeeding offered significant protection from cancer, they also noted that the highest reported risk factor in developing the disease was abortion.

That's right — the researchers (working at the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka) apparently determined that abortion was not just a risk factor for abortion, but the highest one. Higher than genetics? Hormone therapy? Caldwell does claim that abortion increases women's risk more than either smoking or menopause, but he doesn't mention whether the researchers did any genetic testing, or really anything about their methodology. And I had no luck finding the study online — though interestingly, it's being covered almost exclusively by anti-choice websites.

Dr Kat Arney, [Cancer Research UK]'s science information manager, said: ‘This is a very small study of only 300 women, so there are likely to be statistical errors in a sample of this size.

‘Much larger studies involving tens of thousands of women have shown no significant links.'

Caldwell might have actually discussed some of these studies, like one conducted at Harvard on over 100,000 women, or another in Denmark on 1.5 million women. Instead, here's his next rhetorical move:

But the findings prompted accusations that women in Britain are not being properly informed of the dangers of abortion.

Professor Jack Scarisbrick, the chairman of Life, a pregnancy counselling charity, said: ‘This is devastating new evidence of the abortion-breast cancer link. [...]

‘When will the (medical) establishment face up to this fact and pull its head out of the sand?

‘It is betraying women by failing to warn that what they are doing to their bodies – the quick fix of abortion – can do grave harm.'

I've cut a bit from Scarisbrick's quote — his anti-choice views actually got about twice the ink as Arney's more neutral ones. Caldwell then acknowledges that "Although the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has acknowledged the possibility of an abortion-breast cancer link, most medical professionals in Britain remain unconvinced." Oh, but that's because their data is flawed:

This is because an international study led by Oxford University concluded in 2004 that having an abortion does not heighten a woman's risk.

Some scientists say, however, that the Oxford research was flawed because many of the women studied were too young to have developed the disease.

Again, not sure why Caldwell failed to mention the Danish or Harvard studies, which I'd assume many British doctors are familiar with. Also, he's not specific about the Oxford study he's referring to, but the American Cancer Society website describes an international study by Oxford researchers that sounds a lot less flawed than he's implying:

The Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer, based out of Oxford University in England, recently put together the results from 53 separate studies done in 16 different countries. These studies included about 83,000 women with breast cancer [emphasis mine]. After combining and reviewing the results from these studies, the researchers concluded that "the totality of worldwide epidemiological evidence indicates that pregnancies ending as either spontaneous or induced abortions do not have adverse effects on women's subsequent risk of developing breast cancer."

Caldwell winds up his piece thus:

There has been an 80 per cent increase in the rate of breast cancer since 1971, when in the wake of the Abortion Act, the number of abortions rose from 18,000 to nearly 200,000 a year.

Earlier this year, Dr Louise Brinton, a senior researcher with the U.S. National Cancer Institute who did not accept the link, reversed her position to say she was now convinced abortion increased the risk of breast cancer by about 40 per cent.

As to the first point, someone might want to remind Caldwell that correlation does not imply causation. Or that abortions might have been the teensiest bit underreported when they were illegal. And as to the second, one cancer researcher may be convinced of a link between abortion and breast cancer. But the U.S. National Cancer Institute itself, after pulling together more than 100 cancer experts in 2003, concluded that while full-term pregnancy increased breast cancer risk for a short time, abortion had no effect. And here's what the American Cancer Society has to say on the subject:

The issue of abortion generates passionate viewpoints in many people. Breast cancer is the most common cancer, and is the second leading cancer killer in women (lung cancer is the first). Still, the public is not well-served by false alarms. At this time, the scientific evidence does not support the notion that abortion of any kind raises the risk of breast cancer.

Given the choice between the American Cancer Society and studies of more than a million women, or one study of 300 reported in a paper known for its anti-woman coverage, I know which one I'd believe.

Image from the upcoming HBO documentary on the scare tactics of crisis pregnancy centers, '12th and Delaware'

Abortion 'Triples Breast Cancer Risk': Fourth Study Finds Terminations Linked To Disease [Daily Mail]
Is Abortion Linked To Breast Cancer? [American Cancer Society]