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.