Yet Another Anti-Abortion Scare Tactic: False Claims of Breast Cancer Risk

Some anti-abortion activists rely upon phony medical claims as a way to deter women from choosing abortion. Motivated by their desire to overturn the United State Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade and to deprive women of the right to choose, anti-abortion advocates manipulate science about women’s health as a way to achieve their goals.1 For example, some extremists claim that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer, notwithstanding that there is broad consensus in the scientific community that abortion does not increase breast cancer risk. Although these claims continue to be rejected by the scientific community and the courts, some opponents of abortion continue to spread false information about breast cancer, an issue of health already of grave concern to women.

The Scientific Evidence Demonstrates That Abortion Does Not Increase The Risk of Breast Cancer

The issue of abortion and breast cancer has been considered in several scientific studies. The weight of the evidence from these studies demonstrates that abortion does not increase the risk of breast cancer.

The results from many of the early studies on the relationship between abortion and breast cancer indicated that abortions do not cause breast cancer. Although some of these early studies did suggest an association, these results were questioned due to problems inherent in the design of the studies.2

In 1997, the New England Journal of Medicine published what is regarded as the most methodologically-sound study to look at the alleged link between breast cancer and abortion. The study examined the official medical records of over one million women in Denmark.3 The authors compared the medical histories of women who had breast cancer based on whether or not they also had abortions. The study concluded definitively that abortion has no overall effect on a woman’s breast cancer risk.4

Several subsequent well-regarded studies have also used record-based research methods to examine the issue in different populations. Like the Danish study, these studies have concluded that there is no association between abortion and breast cancer. 5 One recent study even suggests that abortion may be associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer.6

Leading Medical Organizations Confirm There is No Increased Risk

In February 2003, the National Cancer Institute convened a workshop of over 100 of the world’s leading experts to examine whether there is a relationship between pregnancy and breast cancer risk, including whether there is an association between abortion and breast cancer. The experts concluded that having an abortion does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.7 The American Cancer Society, the National Breast Cancer Coalition, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the World Health Organization have also concluded that no link has been established between abortion and breast cancer.8

Continued Anti-Abortion Misinformation

In spite of the overwhelming evidence and scientific consensus to the contrary, some anti-abortion activists continue to make distorted claims regarding abortion and its relationship to breast cancer. For example, one claim is that there is a "statistically significant association" between abortion and breast cancer. But this statement selectively relies on outdated and inconclusive studies, ignoring the many recent well-conducted studies that show there is no association. In addition, claims suggesting that because an "association" has been shown between abortion and breast cancer that there is, in fact, a connection between the two are misleading. For example, over the last few decades in the United States, it would be true to say that there is a statistical association between computer use and breast cancer because both computer use and the incidence of breast cancer have increased during that period. That statistical association, however, does not mean that computer use causes or is any way linked to breast cancer.

Some anti-abortion activists also incorrectly say that young women who choose abortion are at an increased risk for developing breast cancer. These claims are based on evidence suggesting that carrying a pregnancy to term before age 35 may confer a later protective effect against breast cancer. 9 The scientific evidence demonstrates, however, that a young woman who has an abortion is left in the same position as if she had never been pregnant.10 Claiming that a young woman who has an abortion is at a heightened risk of developing breast cancer is like claiming that a young woman who is abstinent and therefore does not become pregnant is at a heightened risk of developing breast cancer.

Anti-Abortion Tactics

Abortion opponents have attempted to use the alleged link between abortion and breast cancer as part of their aggressive legislative campaign to reduce access to abortion. In recent years, more than fifteen states have considered legislation that could force doctors to give patients medically inaccurate and alarmist information on the alleged link between abortion and breast cancer. At least 4 states have enacted confusing laws that refer to breast cancer as a possible risk from abortion, but only require physicians to discuss the potential risk "when medically accurate."11 Based on the conclusive medical evidence, telling a woman that abortion increases her risk of breast cancer would never be "medically accurate."

Anti-abortion activists have also engaged in advertising campaigns to spread misinformation about abortion and breast cancer using billboards and subway posters. In a lawsuit involving one of those subway advertisements, a federal judge described a poster as "misleading" and "unduly alarming."12

Not content to spread their misinformation, opponents of abortion have also filed lawsuits against abortion providers making truthful statements about the fact that there is no link between abortion and breast cancer. In the first case of its kind to go to trial, the Center for Reproductive Rights represented an abortion clinic in North Dakota that was sued after it distributed a brochure disputing the claim that abortion causes breast cancer. The Center prevailed at trial by proving that the brochure’s statements were truthful and not misleading. 13 The North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the case on the grounds that the anti-abortion protestor who brought the claim had no standing to sue the clinic under the state’s consumer protection act.14 In a suit in California, similar claims were dismissed against a clinic. 15

In Florida, the Center for Reproductive Rights successfully challenged a law requiring parental notice for abortion, in spite of efforts by the state to justify the requirement, in part, based on the alleged abortion/breast cancer link. 16

For further information on breast cancer contact:
American Cancer Society, www.cancer.org
1-800-ACS-2345

National Cancer Institute, www.cancer.gov
1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237)

 

Endnotes:
1. See NATIONAL ABORTION FEDERATION, FACT SHEET SERIES: POST-ABORTION ISSUES, at http://www.prochoice.org (1999); CENTER FOR REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS, FIRST-EVER BAN ON ABORTION VIOLATES WOMEN’S RIGHTS, at http://reproductiverights.org/en/resources/publications/briefing-papers  (2004); see also Press Release, American Psychological Association, Data From Long-Term Study Demonstrate That Even Highly Religious Women are not at Significantly Greater Risk of Psychological Distress Because They Had an Abortion, at http://www.apa.org/releases/abort.html (Jan. 31, 1997).
2. See, e.g., Matti A. Rookus & Flora E. van Leeuwen, Induced Abortion and Risk for Breast Cancer: Reporting (Recall) Bias in a Dutch Case-Control Study, 88 J. NAT’L CANCER INST. 1759 (1996); Britt-Marie Lindefors-Harris et al., Response Bias in a Case-Control Study: Analysis Utilizing Comparative Data Concerning Legal Abortions From Two Independent Swedish Studies, 134 AM. J. EPIDEMIOLOGY 1003 (1991).
3. Mads Melbye et al., Induced Abortion and the Risk of Breast Cancer, 336 NEW ENG. J. MED. 81 (1997).
4. Id.
5. See, e.g., M. Sanderson et al., Abortion History and Breast Cancer Risk: Results From the Shanghai Breast Cancer Study, 92 INT’L J. CANCER 899 (2001); Ye Z et al., Breast Cancer in Relation to Induced Abortions in a Cohort of Chinese Women, 87 BRIT. J. CANCER 977 (2002).
6. See G. Erlandsson et al., Abortions and Breast Cancer: Record-Based Case-Control Study, 103 INT’L J. CANCER 676 (2003); see also Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer, Breast Cancer and Abortion: Collaborative Reanalysis of Data from 53 Epidemiological Studies, including 83,000 Women with Breast Cancer from 16 Counties, 363 LANCET 1007 (2004).
7. NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE, ABORTION, MISCARRIAGE, AND BREAST CANCER RISK, at http://cis.nci.nih.gov/fact/3_75.htm (last modified May 30, 2003).
8. See AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY, CAN HAVING AN ABORTION CAUSE OR CONTRIBUTE TO BREAST CANCER?, at http://www.cancer.org/docroot/CRI/content/ CRI_2_6x_Can_Having_an_Abortion_Cause_or_Contribute_to_Breast_Cancer.asp?sitearea (last modified Mar. 25, 2004); NATIONAL BREAST CANCER COALITION, POSITION STATEMENT ON ABORTION AND BREAST CANCER RISK, at http://www.natlbcc.org/bin/index.asp?strid=364&depid=9 (2003); Press Release, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, ACOG Finds No Link Between Abortion and Breast Cancer Risk, at http://www.acog.org/from_home/publications/press_releases/nr07-31-03-2.cfm? (July 31, 2003); WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION, INDUCED ABORTION DOES NOT INCREASE BREAST CANCER RISK, at http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs240/en (2000).
9. See, e.g., Wei-Chu Chie et al.,
Age at Any Full-Term Pregnancy and Breast Cancer Risk
, 151 AM. J. EPIDEMIOLOGY 715 (2000); Jan Wohlfahrt & Mads Melbye, Age at Any Birth is Associated with Breast Cancer Risk, 12 EPIDEMIOLOGY 68 (2001).
10. See Pamela M. Marcus et al., Adolescent Reproductive Events and Subsequent Breast Cancer Risk, 89 AMER. J. PUB. HEALTH 1244 (1999).
11. MONT. CODE ANN. §§ 50-20-104 & 50-20-106 (1995); MISS. CODE ANN. § 41-41-33 (1996); TEX. HEALTH & SAFETY CODE ANN. § 171.012(1)(B)(iii) (2003); MINN. STAT. ANN. § 145.4242 (2003).
12. See Christ’s Bride Ministries, Inc. v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transp. Auth., 937 F. Supp. 425, 434 (E.D. Pa. 1996), rev’d on other grounds, 148 F.3d 242 (3d Cir. 1998).
13. Mattson v. MKB Mgmt. Corp., No. 99-3734 (E. Cent. Dist. Ct. N.D. Mar. 28, 2002).
14. Kjolsrud v. MKB Mgmt. Corp., 669 N.W.2d 82 (N.D. 2003), aff’g Mattson v. MKB Mgmt. Corp., No. 99-3734 (E. Cent. Dist. Ct. N.D. Mar. 28, 2002); see also Press Release, Center for Reproductive Rights, North Dakota Supreme Court Throws Out Abortion-Breast Cancer Lawsuit Against Clinic, at http://reproductiverights.org/en/press-room/north-dakota-supreme-court-t... (Sept. 23, 2003).
15. Bernardo v. Planned Parenthood Fed’n of America, 9 Cal. Rptr. 3d 197 (Cal.Ct.App. 2004).
16. North Florida Women’s Health and Counseling Servs., Inc. v. State of Florida, 866 So.2d 612 (Fla. 2003); see also Press Release, Center for Reproductive Rights, Florida Supreme Court Upholds Young Women’s Constitutional Right to Abortion, at http://reproductiverights.org/en/press-room/florida-supreme-court-uphold... (July 10, 2003).