What scientists don't tell you about abortion


For the past month or so, the pro-life community has been buzzing.

It would appear that at long last one of the leading breast-cancer researchers in the world, Louise Brinton, chief of the hormonal and reproductive epidemiology branch of the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI), has admitted a link between abortion and a higher risk of breast cancer among women.

Dr. Brinton's admission—if you can call it that—is not exactly straightforward. She is one of the co-authors of a study of 1,600 Seattle women that seems to show a 40% greater chance of a woman developing breast cancer if she has had an abortion.

Still, even such an indirect concession by Dr. Brinton would be remarkable.

In 2003, Dr. Brinton chaired a conference on the ABC (abortion-breast cancer) link for the NCI and invited "over 100 of the world's leading experts" to attend.

To that point, worldwide, 29 of 38 studies in the previous 40 years had shown a slightly elevated risk for breast cancer among women who had prematurely terminated a pregnancy—somewhere between 30% and 100% greater risk, right in the range of the new Seattle study. Interestingly, though, none of the authors of the raised-risk studies was invited to the NCI conference, nor were any of their findings discussed. Yet at the end of the conference, it was declared to be "well established" that "induced abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer risk."

Frankly, the whole event reminded me of a United Nations conference on global warming: Invite only those scientists who agree with the preconceived conclusions of the gathering's organizers. Ignore (or even suppress) any research that tends to disprove their theories. And in the end declare that the "science is settled" because all the world's "experts" have said so.

So while Dr. Brinton has only signed off on the conclusions of a single Seattle study—she has made no public admission of any change of thinking—the fact she chose to associate herself with a study showing an ABC link is important.

But is the risk the study shows truly significant?

Not really.

Most epidemiologists don't worry too much until the elevated risk for any single factor reaches 200%, and they only worry then if the level is repeated in study after study. For instance, smokers are 1,400% more likely to develop lung cancer than non-smokers, even non-smokers who inhale a lot of secondhand smoke. The increased risk of contracting cancer from smoking is clear.

Dr. Brinton and the other Seattle researchers controlled for women's ages, their family history of breast cancer, lactation history and how long they had taken birth control pills. They even sorted out those subjects who had never been pregnant from those who had so theirs would be an apples-to-apples study.

Only women who had been pregnant were surveyed. Then the cancer rates of those who had not ended their pregnancies were compared with those who had.

As several defenders of the "well-established" view on ABC have pointed out, the Seattle study did not correct for income or obesity or any of a handful of other factors that similar health studies have accounted for. Therefore, they argue, the elevated risk seen in this latest study might well just be statistical static.

And it might be.

Politicians and cause pleaders favour abortion and oppose smoking, so they admit risks only as it suits their agendas.

But why then the rush to denounce anyone who so much as asks questions about the conventional view on the subject? (Again, a parallel between the ABC debate and the global warming debate.) One blogger wrote that anyone supporting the Seattle research was "anti-choice, anti-women and anti-health."

The answer, of course, is that even cancer research is now politicized. For more than a decade there have been several reputable scientists convinced of a small ABC risk. But they have been unable to get heard over the din of name-calling and character assassination that the pro-choice side has thrown up to prevent any claw-back of abortion rights.

There is plenty of hypocrisy in this, too. Second-hand smoke increases non-smokers' risk of lung cancer by less then 20%, even with prolonged, heavy exposure. That's about half the apparent increased risk of developing breast cancer from having an abortion. Yet governments have passed all sorts of laws shielding the public from secondhand smoke at work, the arena, the mall and the stadium.

This is pure bias. Politicians and cause pleaders favour abortion and oppose smoking, so they admit risks only as it suits their agendas.




Lorne Gunter. "What scientists don't tell you about abortion." National Post, (Canada) January 15, 2010.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.


Lorne Gunter is a regular columnist with The Edmonton Journal, and frequent contributor to the National Post. He began his journalism career in 1991, covering federal and provincial politics. An occasional panelist on the CBC's The National, Lorne is a regular contributor of commentaries for both CBC Radio and Global Television, as well as for several private radio services. He has published essays and opinion pieces in various newspapers and magazines, including The Globe and Mail, Readers' Digest, National Review, the Weekly Standard and others. He is currently the editorial director of the Canadian Centre for Libertarian Studies, a member of the editorial board of conservativeforum.org and the incoming president of Civitas—a society for conservative and libertarian academics, think-tankers, lobbyists and journalists. A native of Medicine Hat, Alta., Lorne is a graduate of the University of Alberta, is married and has two young children.

Copyright © 2010 National Post

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