Government Reform Minority Office Politics & Science - Investigating the State of Science Under the Bush Administration Politics & Science -- Investigating the State of Science Under the Bush Administration

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Breast Cancer Risks

National Cancer Institute website
An online National Cancer Institute fact sheet was changed to suggest a link between breast cancer and abortions, a move the New York Times called "an egregious distortion" of scientific evidence.

Claiming that abortion can cause breast cancer, social conservatives have pushed for laws across the country that require doctors to provide “counseling” about this alleged risk to all women seeking abortions.[1] As these efforts advanced last year, the Bush Administration distorted the science on this issue to misleadingly portray abortion as a risk factor in breast cancer when there is a scientific consensus that it is not.

Until the summer of 2002, the National Cancer Institute posted an analysis on its web site concluding that the current body of scientific evidence does not support the claim that abortions increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer.[2] The analysis explained that after some uncertainty before the mid-1990s, this issue had been resolved by several well-designed studies, the largest of which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1997,[3] finding no link between abortion and breast cancer risk.

In November 2002, however, the Bush Administration removed this analysis and posted new information about abortion and breast cancer on the NCI web site. The new fact sheet stated:

[T]he possible relationship between abortion and breast cancer has been examined in over thirty published studies since 1957. Some studies have reported statistically significant evidence of an increased risk of breast cancer in women who have had abortions, while others have merely suggested an increased risk. Other studies have found no increase in risk among women who have had an interrupted pregnancy. [4]

This new fact sheet erroneously suggested that whether abortion caused breast cancer was an open question with studies of equal weight supporting both sides. The New York Times called the NCI’s new statement “an egregious distortion of the evidence.”[5] According to the director of epidemiology research for the American Cancer Society, “This issue has been resolved scientifically . . . . This is essentially a political debate.”[6]

After members of Congress protested the change,[7] NCI convened a three-day conference of experts on abortion and breast cancer. Participants reviewed all existing population-based, clinical, and animal data available, and concluded that “[i]nduced abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer risk,” ranking this conclusion as “well-established.”[8] On March 21, 2003, the NCI web site was updated to reflect this conclusion.[9]

[1] Texas OKs Disputed Abortion Legislation, Los Angeles Times, 1 (May 22, 2003).

[2] National Cancer Institute, Abortion and Breast Cancer (Mar. 6, 2002).

[3] M. Melbye et al., Induced Abortion and the Risk of Breast Cancer, New England Journal of Medicine, 81–85 (Jan. 9, 1997).

[4] National Cancer Institute, Early Reproductive Events and Breast Cancer (Nov. 25, 2002).

[5] Abortion and Breast Cancer, New York Times (Jan. 6, 2003).

[6] Abortion Foes Seize on Reports of Cancer Link in Ad Campaign, Los Angeles Times (Mar. 24, 2002).

[7] Letter from Rep. Henry A. Waxman et al. to Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson (Dec. 18, 2002).

[8] National Cancer Institute, Summary Report: Early Reproductive Events and Breast Cancer (Mar. 4, 2003) (online at http://www.cancer.gov/
cancerinfo/ere-workshop-report).

[9] National Cancer Institute, Abortion, Miscarriage, and Breast Cancer Risk (Mar. 21, 2003) (online at http://cis.nci.nih.gov/fact/3_75.htm).

 
   Presented by Rep. Henry A. Waxman, Ranking Member, Committee on Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives