Abortion and Breast Cancer: Slicing the truth in half

By Joel Brind, PhD

For a political body, such as the Texas state legislature, cobbling together an informational booklet about the safety of abortion is a huge challenge. The authors are trying to balance the opinions of two opposing views wherein one side would prefer that no information is included that suggests that there are any risks to a woman who has an abortion.

So if the booklet tells the whole truth—that abortion is far from safe for women; that it surely increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer, for example–the “abortion is safe” crowd will go ballistic.

Texas’ “The Woman’s Right to Know booklet” is in many aspects an outstanding resource. But on the question of the link between abortion and breast cancer, it tiptoes up to the edge of complete accuracy only to give the pro-abortion side the all-important “it’s still being studied” conclusion.

Ironically for this, a Factchecker at the Washington Post gave the booklet “3 Pinocchios,” with 4 being the worst.

Michelle Ye Hee Lee’s December 14 Factchecker post is entitled “Texas state booklet misleads women on abortions and their risk of breast cancer.” So what does the brand new edition of the Texas Women’s Right to Know booklet say about abortion and breast cancer?

“Your pregnancy history affects your chances of getting breast cancer. If you give birth to your baby, you are less likely to develop breast cancer in the future. Research indicates that having an abortion will not provide you this increased protection against breast cancer. In addition, doctors and scientists are actively studying the complex biology of breast cancer to understand whether abortion may affect the risk of breast cancer.”

(The booklet also recommends that a woman consult her doctor if she has a positive family history of breast cancer.)

The first half of the statement (first three sentences) is absolutely true, and it does imply that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. The second sentence is technically true—although the medical establishment is not interested in studying the “complex biology”, actively or otherwise—but misleading, because it suggests that whether abortion affects the risk of breast cancer is basically unknown.

To Lee, the opposite is true, i.e., the first half of the statement is “technically correct, but it is deceiving” (Here she is quoting Otis Brawley, an American Cancer Society official).

According to Lee, it is misleading to suggest that abortion increases breast cancer risk, because “research overwhelmingly shows that abortion is not associated with a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer.” Here, she is basically citing the party line of the US National Cancer Institute (NCI; the largest of the NIH Institutes, part of our federal Department of Health and Human Services).

To flesh this out a bit more, there are really two aspects to what has become known as the abortion-breast cancer link (ABC-link). One aspect—which is not in dispute—is indeed the fact that abortion abrogates the protective effect of full-term pregnancy.

The controversy is about the other aspect, known as the independent link: that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer beyond what it would have been had the woman not gotten pregnant in the first place. (It is the latter which is typically studied in epidemiological research on the ABC link.)

The NCI’s position (which Lee endorses) is that the independent link does not exist. Thus to cite the loss of full-term pregnancy protection is misleading.

But that’s like saying, “A woman’s risk is not increased by the abortion, but by the termination of the pregnancy.” If that’s not double-speak, I don’t know what is. (Pinocchio-worthy, for sure!)

Let’s consider the very purpose of The Woman’s Right to Know booklet which Texas Right to Life describes as “an important resource for women facing the life-altering decision of aborting their preborn children.”

It is to provide a factual basis for obtaining informed consent for abortion. This is an ethical requirement for any sort of medical or surgical intervention.

Specifically, the patient must be informed about the risk of any negative consequences of having the procedure in question, versus not having the procedure. Since having an abortion leaves the patient at higher risk of future breast cancer compared to not having an abortion (i.e., carrying the pregnancy to term), this must be unequivocally stated in the booklet. It is.

But then there is that pesky independent ABC link. To prove its non-existence, Lee relies heavily on the NCI’s 2003 “workshop” which (in Lee’s words) reported that the best and most recent research “consistently showed no association between induced abortion and breast cancer risk”

The “workshop” was, to be more precise, a 3-day event during which all the data on the ABC link was said to be thoroughly reviewed. The trouble is this is provably untrue. The proof is still in the video archive of the public sessions of the “workshop” available on the NCI website, cancer.gov.

As one of the 100 invited experts, I asked Dr. Leslie Bernstein, the main presenter, point blank for the new data, which she had summarized in a short presentation, to review. She replied that it would not be available until after it was published (a few months thence). The old data, which my group had reviewed back in 1996 (and published about), was never reviewed at the “workshop” at all. (This exchange is in the video record.)

As NRL News Today readers have seen over the years (more than 20 years now!), the older studies clearly showed a significant ABC link. The newer studies (which largely did not show a link) were fraught with methodological errors and chicanery.

But in truth the evidence of the ABC link is overwhelming. The epidemic of abortion has led to a predictable epidemic of breast cancer in Asia and elsewhere, which I have also written about extensively in NRL News.

Literally dozens of studies have emerged just within the last decade. A recent systematic review in China summarized the results of 36 studies. My colleagues and I at the Breast Cancer Prevention Institute are currently putting together a review of almost two dozen more in South Asia. Some of these studies show an extremely strong link, with abortion raising breast cancer risk by as much as 20-fold in one study in Bangladesh!

But even back in 2003, the ABC link had already been established beyond any reasonable doubt, in my view. That’s why I published a “minority dissenting comment” on the NCI website following the 2003 “workshop.”

In fact, this comment was cited by Lee, although she deserves some Pinocchios here. Specifically, Lee wrote, “One researcher submitted a minority dissent report claiming partial disagreement with this conclusion [that the ABC link had been essentially disproven by recent studies].”

In fact, my “partial disagreement” was not with that conclusion: I thoroughly and unequivocally disagreed with that conclusion! The “partial disagreement” was in relation to the overall findings of the “workshop,” most of which had nothing to do with abortion. (They had to do with other “early reproductive events.”)

In fairness to Ms. Lee, the NCI only posted a short quote from my “minority dissenting comment,” but enough was quoted to make it clear that I was “convinced that the weight of available evidence suggests a real, independent, positive association between induced abortion and breast cancer risk.” One would think that Lee would actually want to see the “minority dissenting comment” in full, since there was clearly nothing “partial” about the disagreement with the workshop findings regarding the ABC link.

Since it is described on the NCI website as a “public comment,” one could have hoped Lee would also ask the NCI who wrote it and where to find it. Had she done so, there would have been far less chance her conclusion would have supported the “safe abortion” mythology, and bashed the Texas legislature for having the audacity to challenge it.

So we come back to the Texas booklet. Kudos to Texas for managing to overcome the abortion-friendly political forces to publish—as best it could—a fair and balanced presentation to help women understand what they are in for if they choose abortion.

But it’s useful to keep in mind that “fair and balanced” is not the same thing as objective. “Fair and balanced” can be 50% truth and 50% spin. Something that is objective is 100% truth.

In the present case, the truth level of the Factchecker gets closer to 0%.

Editor’s note. Joel Brind, Ph.D., is a professor of biology and endocrinology at Baruch College of the City University of New York, and is co-founder of the Breast Cancer Prevention Institute. He is a regular contributor to NRL News and to NRL News Today.

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