Introduction

Study Finds No Link Between Breast Cancer and Abortion, Miscarriage

PJ Hamel Health Guide April 30, 2007
  • The New York Times recently ran a story detailing results of a large study by a team from Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and the Harvard School of Public Health. That team, using data from the Nurses’ Health Study II, which ran from 1993 to 2003 and included over 100,000 women, reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine that they found no connection between abortion, miscarriage and breast cancer.

    There are clinical studies going on constantly, examining health risks of all kinds. From whether exercise lowers your risk of breast cancer (it does) to whether eating eggs is good or bad for your cholesterol (the jury is out), researchers are plying their trade every day. And medical journals, from JAMA to the extremely obscure, are reporting their findings.  But the Times prints only those study results that will affect a significant portion of their readership. So why this particular one?

    Because the supposed link between breast cancer, abortion and miscarriage–-and especially between breast cancer and induced abortion–-has been lingering out there for 50 years, quietly establishing itself as a legitimate concern-–simply for its longevity on the radar screen, if nothing else. Beginning in the late 1950s, when the first studies began, right up through the mid-1990s, it appeared there might, indeed, be a link. Some studies completed during this time did show increased risk for breast cancer in women who’d had an abortion or miscarriage.

    According to current information from the National Cancer Institute, however, those studies were flawed, in a number of important ways. They involved small numbers of women; they relied on women revealing whether or not they’d had an abortion or miscarriage, rather than on medical records; and they studied only women who already had breast cancer, and might conceivably be more forthcoming about their past abortions or miscarriages than healthy women.

    However, beginning with results of a Danish study involving 1.5 million women, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1997, there have been no studies showing a link. The current Brigham and Women’s/Harvard information is just the latest in a line of “no-link” study results. So why did the Times suddenly decide to give this particular information column space in its well-respected pages? It’s a subject that affects very few readers, relatively speaking.

    Until you factor in a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion, which the Times’ Nicholas Bakalar writes “suggested that an abortion procedure could be banned if it posed a risk to a woman’s health.” Ah. That’s why the story’s getting play. It’s become part of the political football known as “the abortion debate,” something that’s divided our national conscience since Roe vs. Wade, in 1973.

    The Brigham and Women’s study, and Bakalar’s piece, have produced a firestorm of blog responses, ranging from Gloria Feldt’s on WIMN’s Voices, an online community of 50 women blogging on media coverage of women (Feldt is a past CEO and president of Planned Parenthood); to Dave Pierre’s on the Newsbusters site, whose tagline is “Exposing and Combating Liberal Media Bias.” Abortion and breast cancer is a football, all right. There’s no shortage of media players wanting to pick it up and run with it, and the politicians will surely follow.

  • So, in the weeks and months ahead, beware: don’t blindly believe everything you read, whether it’s in the New York Times or a politician’s flyer. Unless you enjoy spending countless hours puzzling through reams of contradictory information and opinions, online and in print, pick a trusted source–-when it comes to cancer, I have faith in the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, among others–-and stick with it.

    For more news coverage and analysis on the link between breast cancer, abortion and miscarriage, please visit our special section:

    Abortion, Miscarriage and Breast Cancer Risk