Media Bias Continues on Abortion-Breast Cancer Link Studies

Opinion   |   Denise Hunnell, M.D.   |   Dec 5, 2011   |   2:09PM   |   Washington, DC

Which of the following is likely to be motivated by ideological bias:  Reports on independent medical studies that show a link between a commonly chosen medical procedure and rates of a certain type of cancer, or news stories that ignore the latest scientific evidence and rely on a single, controversial, and now-debunked report to make the case in favor that the medical procedure?

In a, to put it charitably, questionable news article, The Daily Caller suggests that pro-life medical and research experts, dubbed “advocates,” are motivated by a political agenda after statements on recent research that showed a nearly 3-fold increase in breast cancer in women who had an abortion. The headline, “Pro-Life Advocates: Study shows link between abortion and breast cancer; cancer institute: no way,” suggests that this is an ideological battle rather than a debate in which almost all relevant research points in a specific direction. In fact, The Daily Caller claims the “experts” deny a link between breast cancer and abortion, while the “advocates” say the link exists.

This statement is patently false. The study in question, published in Health Care for Women International, did show that in a cohort of over three hundred Armenian women, having a single induced abortion was associated with a 286% increase in the incidence of breast cancer. Their report is qualified, as all such research must be: The researchers cautioned about drawing too many conclusions about breast cancer and abortion citing the limitations of their work, noting that these results were in conflict with studies published in 1996 and 1997.

They did not comment on the numerous studies that do find a correlation between abortion and breast cancer, and they did acknowledge the possible inaccuracy of their data collection since it relied on women self-reporting their medical histories, including abortions. The purpose of the research was not to determine a link between breast cancer and abortion; it was to investigate a possible link between Type 2 Diabetes and breast cancer. Findings related to abortion and breast cancer in this report, therefore, are limited by the study design and can be viewed as suggestive of a breast cancer-abortion link but are not necessarily conclusive.

Still, in light of the extensive research and analysis that has shown such a connection, the results of this study cannot be dismissed as a mere scientific anomaly.

How does The Daily Caller bolster its claim that reporting the correlation between induced abortions and breast cancer is just pro-life propaganda? They appeal to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which points to a 2003 NCI workshop report that forms the basis for the NCI “fact sheet” regarding abortion and breast cancer risk. This report, and the fact sheet used by pro-abortion activists and others, denies any link between abortion and breast cancer

What The Daily Caller reporter did not report is that the NCI report has had credibility issues from the beginning. Dr. Joel Brind, a professor of endocrinology at Baruch College, claimed that the outcome of the workshop which led to the report was preordained by the workshop membership. He alleges he was barred from participating because his research had shown a clear link between abortion and breast cancer. Furthermore, and this is the more glaring omission by those who appeal to the NCI “fact sheet” as the definitive denial of the abortion/breast cancer link, the chairperson of the NCI workshop, Dr. Louise Brinton, published a paper in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention in 2009 that concluded there was a forty percent increase in risk for an aggressive form of breast cancer in women with a history of induced abortion. She supported her research with two studies that were rejected for consideration by the 2003 NCI workshop.

The information from the 2003 NCI workshop report appears to have been purposely skewed at the time of its original publication, and at the very least, it is no longer reflective of the current body of research.

Point being, there is no credible basis for using the 2003 NCI workshop report as the authoritative statement about the abortion-breast cancer connection, and it is a scandal that the National Cancer Institute allows such popular misunderstanding to go unchallenged, and maintains the discredited report as the sole basis for its denial of the abortion/breast cancer link. Why would they leave it up to the “activists” to set the story straight on this crucial life and death issue?

So back to the original question. Is it ideologically biased to accurately report research that demonstrates a correlation between abortion and breast cancer? Is it ideologically biased to give women the full range of risks posed by abortion? The Daily Caller owes its readers an answer to that question. On the contrary, suppressing the publication of scientific research that runs counter to your political leanings is the epitome of ideological bias.

I agree with The Daily Caller that the reporting of the abortion-breast cancer issue is tainted with propaganda. But it is not the pro-lifers who are issuing the half-truths and censoring studies that disagree with their position. It is the abortion advocates who undermine the integrity of the scientific method by selectively reporting data that is favorable to their cause and arbitrarily rejecting data that is critical of abortion.

Breast cancer is what endocrinologists call a multi-factorial disease: It is difficult to identify specific causes with any degree of certainty. But what can be ascertained is risk. Some risk factors, genetic predisposition for example, cannot be altered, but behavior can, and indeed, must be altered in many cases. Women have a right to know the risks they can control, and they deserve to know the truth about the now overwhelming research that supports a link between abortion and breast cancer. There is no justification for keeping women in the dark about their potentially increased risk of breast cancer following an abortion. Such bias can have deadly results. Note:  Denise Hunnell, MD, is a Fellow of HLI America, an educational initiative of Human Life International. She writes for HLI America’s Truth and Charity Forum.