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Is abortion a breast cancer risk?

"Is abortion a breast cancer risk?" Continued...

“Cancer has a latency period,” Brind said. “It’s probably going to [develop] five or 10 years later. It’s not going to be tomorrow.” By excluding very early cases of abortions, and excluding later cases of breast cancer, the study introduced a bias that can make a risk factor disappear, Brind said. (The Denmark study authors have disputed Brind’s criticisms.)

But no one disputes that full-term pregnancy offers a protective effect against breast cancer. By terminating the pregnancy, abortion removes that protection. In the United States, it also limits the protective effect of young motherhood, since abortion is often used to eliminate teenage pregnancy.

If an abortion link exists, how would it work? Brind explains the physiology this way: During pregnancy, estrogen and progesterone cause cancer-vulnerable breast tissue to multiply. This tissue largely becomes resistant to cancer later in the pregnancy, by week 32, when much of it is transformed into milk-producing cells. After a pregnancy reaches this late stage, it confers a long-term protective effect against breast cancer.

But when a pregnancy is unnaturally cut short before 32 weeks, Brind said, the cancer-vulnerable breast tissue never has a chance to develop into the safer, milk-producing tissue. In that way, abortion increases the risk of developing cancer years later. (Brind said an early miscarriage probably wouldn’t have the same effect, because the low hormone levels often associated with miscarriage would produce little breast tissue growth.)

The mechanism might make sense, but even among pro-life doctors, not all are convinced the evidence for the abortion-breast cancer link is conclusive.

The Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), representing 16,000 healthcare professionals, set up a panel several years ago to review the evidence for and against the abortion-breast cancer link. The organization concluded with this statement, “Studies supporting the different opinions are plagued by imperfect study design. That liability, linked with the potential for author bias, prohibits resolving the question based on the currently available science.”

Dr. Gene Rudd, the senior vice president of CMDA, said he and his colleagues haven’t ruled out the possibility that abortion is a cancer risk. But they don’t want to damage their credibility by overselling evidence that is “concerning, but not convincing.” Rudd said critics of the abortion-breast cancer link do raise some good points, such as the problem of recall bias: “I’m an OB-GYN, and I know that patients often didn’t report abortions to me. They bear guilt over it. There’s some stigma, shame. [They] don’t want their current family to know.”

Rudd has no qualms accusing the scientific community of pro-abortion bias when it comes to reporting on the link, especially among the academic community and science journals in the West: “If they got a good study they would tear it apart. You can always find something you don’t like about a study.” In addition, scientists themselves can present the data in such a way that it shows a link or doesn’t, depending on what side of the abortion debate they fall on.

“Right now, you can sort of throw a dart at the board and land as often on a study that shows a correlation as a study that doesn’t,” Rudd said.

Until research provides a clearer conclusion, CMDA has determined doctors have “an ethical obligation” to inform patients that abortion is a “potential risk” for breast cancer.

That’s a much more careful approach than the one taken by some other medical groups. When influential organizations like the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists deny a link altogether, U.S. doctors following their recommendations don’t feel any obligation to broach the subject to patients considering abortion.

“I think most doctors don’t counsel on this because they don’t think there’s an issue,” Rudd said. “That’s what they’ve been told.”

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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