Abortion, breast cancer, and truth


Eric Zorn wrote a provocative column for the Chicago Tribune last week maligning the various bills in various state legislatures that require a woman to be notified, before undergoing an abortion, that there may be a risk of breast cancer associated with abortion. In the column, Zorn argues that there is unequivocally no such risk, pointing to authorities such as the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the World Health Organization (WHO) that have come out with statements denying a connection between abortion and breast cancer.

Intrigued, I searched the web and came up with differing opinions on the topic. Unsurprisingly, pro-life websites tended to assert a connection between abortion and breast cancer, while pro-choice websites tended to deny that there was any association between the two.

Still intrigued but unsatisfied, I did my own search of the primary scientific literature. Using a medical journal database called Ovid to which I have access through my hospital, I found over 2000 articles in medical journals. I did not read through every one, but after several pages of abstracts and articles I found multiple studies that showed a correlation, and multiple studies that showed none. I could not of course check for ideological bias in each study, but certainly some of the articles did not reach an ideologically pre-determined conclusion; for instance, one would expect that in China, the bias would be towards showing the safety of abortion, but a recent study from that country showed a correlation between abortion and breast cancer.

I think that we in the pro-life camp must be very careful about how we approach this topic. We must not, by ignoring or dismissing the studies that do not reflect our views, pretend that there is a consensus in the scientific literature where in fact none exists; ACOG, WHO, and Eric Zorn may use such subterfuge, but we should not resort to those tactics. We must be careful how we interpret even the studies that do show a correlation, remembering that they demonstrate only a correlation between abortion and breast cancer; and we know that correlation does not imply causation. If we are to be completely truthful, we must not pretend that the studies say what they in fact cannot say.

And finally, I don’t think we should spend too much energy on what is ultimately a side issue. I understand that one of the ways to show that abortion is wrong is to bring to light the ways that it hurts women; however, we should not put more weight on the connection with breast cancer than it can scientifically bear, else we run the risk of having our position undermined by something that is incidental to our main argument. Abortion would be wrong even if it lowered the risk of breast cancer, and we had best not rest our arguments against abortion on shaky science that very well might be disproved some day.

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Cody Chambers
Cody Chambers
8 years ago

Excellent post, Joe. We need renewed interest in a fair analysis of the facts in all our medical endeavors.

Jon Holmlund
8 years ago

I also agree with Joe here. These kind of “association” studies can be very difficult to conduct and interpret, it seems to me (although, to be fair, I have never done one myself). Breast cancer is a hormonally-responsive disease, and women who are young–and, we are talking in their teens–at their first TERM pregnancy have lower risk of breast cancer. Also, in association studies, it is easy to look at relative risk (e.g., “a 16% increase in risk”) and forget that the increase in ABSOLUTE risk may not be so great. Finally, I think Joe’s emphasis on the ethics of the matter, not the “pragmatics,” is spot on.

Will Honeycutt
Will Honeycutt
7 years ago

Correlation means “mutual relationship or connection between two or more things;” “interdependence of variable quantities.” It is not causation, as you say, and that is an excellent point, but it is stronger than what you make it out to be. Consequently I would, and do, communicate that there is a POSSIBLE correlation. The way I word it is that some independent studies indicate a possible correlation between abortion and developing breast cancer later in life. I also make it clear that there are those who, through their studies, deny any correlation, let alone causation. So nothing has been proven and we cannot and should not be dogmatic on this point as Jon made clear. Yet, I find it interesting that with everything else, if there is one iota of risk between X and a woman developing breast cancer, we hear about it through the media: “some studies indicate a possible correlation between X and breast cancer.” But, of course, the liberal media do not in any way want to get women to associate these two in their minds.

I also explain that it is not a sure thing but since studies indicate this possible correlation, we should think about the possible mechanism. A colleague of mine who studies cancer said this was a good way to put it. It is like shutting down a computer without doing so properly. When we do, we always run the risk that something will go wrong with the inner workings of the system and damage the computer. When a woman is pregnant, her whole body is preparing for that baby, including the breasts, and when the pregnancy is improperly “shut down” through abortion, she runs the risk for developing abnormalities in the mammary cells which were preparing to nurse that child.