The Truth About Breast Cancer and Abortion

Amie Newman

A new study confirms no variation in risk related to abortion and triple negative breast cancer. But the anti-choice crowd is misrepresenting it anyway.

There has been renewed excitement in the anti-choice, anti-health movement as of late over the potential link between abortion and breast cancer.  Everyone from Jill Stanek to Beliefnet is reporting on what they have decided is proof positive that induced abortion leads to breast cancer. They are writing about these two health incidents as if there now exists a distinct, clear cause and effect relationship between the two, as evidenced by a new study, the results of which were released in April 2009.

The only problem with reporting on this as if anything were new is that, well, nothing is new.

The April 2009 study to which Stanek, Beliefnet and others are referring is entitled, "Risk Factors for Triple Negative Breast Cancer In Women Under the Age of 45 Years" and was undertaken by researchers affiliated with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, University of Washington’s Department of Epidemiology and the National Cancer Institute. It was published in the April 2009 edition of the Journal of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention. An abstract is available for free but if you’d like to view the entire report, you’ll need to purchase it from the Journal

The goal of this paper was to "assess the risk for triple negative breast cancer" (a rare cancer that is found more frequently in younger women and African-American women and unfortunately, associated with a high mortality rate) among women younger than forty-five years old taking into account "demographic/lifestyle factors, reproductive history, and oral contraceptive use" – something for which the data from the previous studies was not analyzed. However, the data used was collected in the mid to late 1980s through 1990. From the paper itself:

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The cases included in this study were originally ascertained for two previous studies through the population-based Seattle–Puget Sound Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results cancer registry. Eligible cases from the first study population included all primary invasive breast cancers within the three-county Seattle metropolitan area, diagnosed between January 1, 1983, and April 30, 1990 (ages, 21-45 y).

This paper simply took older information in order to determine whether or not the relationships between breast cancer and other factors (family history, early menarche, induced abortion, etc.) held firm when women were stratified according to those with triple negative breast cancer and those without. 

What did this new study confirm in relation to abortion and breast cancer? The study confirms that there is no variation in risk related to abortion and breast cancer stratified by those with and those without triple negative breast cancer because that’s all the study was mean to undertake in regards to these particular conditions. 

According to one of the researchers and authors of the report, Kathi Malone, "There are no new findings related to induced abortion in this paper because the results of these women were published previously." 

In fact, the only reason abortion was included at all was because it was a factor in the old studies. The main conclusions related to this new research had to do with triple negative breast cancer and oral contraceptive use among younger women. 

So just how exactly are anti-choice publications, blogs and others turning this into new evidence about abortion and breast cancer? By wishing really, really hard it were so. And then writing it down and finding someone to publish it. 

Jill Stanek at World Net Daily headlines her article, "Top Scientist Finally Admits Abortion Breast Cancer Link." Over at Beliefnet, another headline claims "Doctor changes position on abortion-breast cancer link."  The doctor to whom they are referring is one of the researchers and authors of this report, Dr. Louise Brinton with the National Cancer Institute. Beliefnet writes,

"An April 2009 study co-authored by a researcher who has previously
denied an abortion-breast cancer link shows a statistically significant
increase in breast cancer risk among women who have had abortions or
who use oral contraceptives. The study by researchers including Jessica
Dolle of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research contained a table
reporting a statistically significant 40 percent risk increase for
women who have had abortions. According to the Coalition on
Abortion/Breast Cancer (CABC), the study listed abortion as among
"known and suspected risk factors."

The CABC says that one co-author of the study, U.S. National
Cancer Institute (NCI) researcher Dr. Louise Brinton, had organized a
2003 NCI workshop on the abortion-breast cancer link. That workshop
reportedly said the non-existence of an abortion-breast cancer link was
"well established." 

It is true that in 2003 the NCI convened a workshop with over 100 of the world’s leading experts "who study pregnancy and breast cancer" and Dr. Brinton was one of those experts.  It is also correct that, according to NCI, "They concluded that having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer." But what is not true is that Dr. Louise Brinton has "changed" her position on the link between abortion and breast cancer, at least publicly, because there is no new information on this link. Again, the study results released last year, on which Dr. Brinton was a researcher, do not include any new information on the overall risk of breast cancer among women who have had abortions. While the National Cancer Institute (NCI) is releasing a "no comment" statement in response to the barrage of poorly reported stories on anti-choice news sites, Dr. Brinton’s co-researcher and co-author, Kathi Malone, is clear about what this and all peer-reviewed studies show thus far on the link between abortion and breast cancer:

"The weight of scientific evidence to date strongly indicates that abortion doesn’t increase the risk of breast cancer."

While older studies have shown a modest increase in risk between abortion and breast cancer, the National Cancer Institute has discounted those studies on their web site for many years and, after a review of the information on their website this week, they are standing by these conclusions- because why? Because there is no new information to be released regarding the risk of breast cancer from a previous abortion. From the NCI web site,

The relationship between
induced and spontaneous abortion and breast cancer risk has been the subject of
extensive research beginning in the late 1950s. Until the mid-1990s, the
evidence was inconsistent. Findings from some studies suggested there was no
increase in risk of breast cancer among women who had had an abortion, while
findings from other studies suggested there was an increased risk. Most of
these studies, however, were flawed in a number of ways that can lead to
unreliable results. Only a small number of women were included in many of these
studies, and for most, the data were collected only after breast cancer had
been diagnosed, and women’s histories of miscarriage and abortion were based on
their “self-report” rather than on their medical records. Since then,
better-designed studies have been conducted. These newer studies examined large
numbers of women, collected data before breast cancer was found, and gathered
medical history information from medical records rather than simply from
self-reports, thereby generating more reliable findings. The newer studies
consistently showed no association between induced and spontaneous abortions
and breast cancer risk. 

Extremist, religious anti-choice web sites are using old data from an old study as proof of a cause and effect relationship even while the National Cancer Institute and one of the study’s own authors clearly state that over the course of years of research, including those old studies, overall evidence indicates no connection between the two. 

What this study may lay the groundwork for, however, is further research into a possible connection between oral contraceptives and triple negative breast cancer. It’s something that those falsely reporting on the abortion and breast cancer link have chosen to ignore. The data did show an increase in triple negative breast cancer amongst young women who use oral contraceptives:

The strong association between oral contraceptive use and the risk for triple-negative breast cancer observed in this study and the relative scarcity of such studies to date emphasize the need for future research.

That’s the evidence we should be discussing; the facts worth reporting.


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