In several states, women considering abortion are given government-issued brochures warning that the procedure could increase their chance of developing breast cancer, despite scientific findings to the contrary.
More than a year ago, a panel of scientists convened by the National Cancer Institute reviewed available data and concluded there is no link. A scientific review in the Lancet, a British medical journal, came to the same conclusion, questioning the methodology in studies that suggested a link.
The cancer information is distributed to women during mandatory waiting periods before abortions. In some cases, the information is on the states’ Web sites.
“We’re going to continue to educate the public about this,” said Karen Malec, president of the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer, an anti-abortion group. She dismissed the National Cancer Institute’s findings as politically motivated and maintained that the link has been scientifically proven.
Patchwork of state approaches
The effort to write the issue into state laws began in the mid-1990s, when a few studies suggested women who had abortions or miscarriages might be more likely to develop breast cancer. The warnings are now required in Texas and Mississippi, and health officials in Kansas and Louisiana voluntarily issue them.
In Mississippi, women who want abortions must sign a form indicating they’ve been told there is a “medical risk” of breast cancer. In other states, brochures say there is a link or that evidence is mixed.
Minnesota law requires the health department to include this information on its Web site, but the department backed down after an outcry from the state’s medical community. Montana law also mandated the warning, but the state Supreme Court struck it down.
The brochures still in circulation tell women the issue “needs further study.”
“They can do further research on their own and determine which of those studies they should put most attention on,” said Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. “We’re just trying to provide all the information it’s possible to provide.”
Changes coming in Louisiana
In Louisiana there will be changes, said Bob Johannessen, spokesman for the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals. He said the department’s new director did not know the state pamphlet included such information until contacted this week by The Associated Press.
“If there is scientific evidence, and it certainly appears there now is, we would certainly make the necessary changes in that brochure,” Johannessen said Tuesday.
The brochure, he said, is a reflection of the “very, very strong pro-family, pro-life leaning” of Louisiana.
“Nonetheless, it’s incumbent on us as the health agency to make sure any information is factually correct,” he said. “We don’t want to be misleading women who are making this important choice.”
A Democrat, Kathleen Blanco, was elected Louisiana governor last year, replacing a Republican.
Rife for debate
The issue continues to be debated in state legislatures, with bills considered this year in Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.
On the federal level, several members of Congress complained last year after the NCI Web site included material suggesting a link between breast cancer and abortion or miscarriage. An expert panel that was asked to review the data reported in March 2003 that “well established” evidence shows no link.
Among the studies cited by the NCI expert panel was Danish research that used computerized medical records to compare women who had undergone abortions with that country’s cancer registry and found no higher cancer rate.
“Having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer,” the NCI site now says.
Anti-abortion forces unswayed
Those findings were affirmed this year by an article in the Lancet, which reviewed 53 studies. Lancet found that studies that purported a link had flawed methodologies.
Still, anti-abortion activists are unconvinced.
Joel Brind, a biochemist at Baruch College in New York who advises the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer, noted that a woman’s chances of getting breast cancer go down if she gives birth at a relatively young age. He reasons that those who opt for abortion are giving up a chance of reducing their breast cancer risk.
Therefore, he says, abortion increases the risk of cancer.
He dismisses the findings of the National Cancer Institute, calling it a “political exercise, a charade if you will.” He participated in those discussions and filed a minority report.