I am currently staying in Melbourne to attend laboratory classes and have been catching the tram in to the city morning and afternoon to get to university. A couple of mornings ago as I was looking out the window, I noticed some anti-abortion picketers with banners and signs standing at either side of the gates to the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne. They were displaying signs decorated with the pink ribbon symbol and slogans claiming that abortion increases women’s risk of developing breast cancer. On my way home, I was prepared to disembark from my tram so that I could take a photograph of the banners that the picketers had set up and ask them a few questions on where they were obtaining data to support their claim, but when I passed the fertility clinic, I saw that they had gone. They were not present when I went past the next day either.
I wish to note that as disagreeable as I find the distressing messages voiced by anti-abortion picketers, I am an advocate for freedom of speech and I do not want to take away their ability to peacefully state their views; though I do appreciate the argument for exclusion zones around abortion clinic gates and would proudly volunteer to be an escort for women who use the clinic’s services, given the appropriate training.
What I do very much object to though, is when they – or anyone, for that matter – tell lies about health risks in order to scare people in to doing as they wish.
There is no credible evidence to support the claim that having an abortion or experiencing miscarriage increases the risk that a woman will develop breast cancer. When I first saw the protesters this morning and tweeted about their appropriation of the pink ribbon symbol, @danientifically (who I recommend you follow if you enjoy tweets from reasoned, compassionate people with a fine sense of humour) asked the Cancer Council Australia how they felt about it. They kindly responded with this link, which contains a brief run down of credible information regarding the myth of a link between abortion and increased risk of breast cancer.
Having had time to look into it since, I’ve found that anti-abortion protesters have been using this myth for quite some time – and as such, there is much literature citing evidence which refutes their claim. From the American Cancer Society:
In February 2003, the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) held a workshop of more than 100 of the world’s leading experts who study pregnancy and breast cancer risk. The experts reviewed human and animal studies that looked at the link between pregnancy and breast cancer risk, including studies of induced and spontaneous abortions. Some of their findings were:
- Breast cancer risk is increased for a short time after a full-term pregnancy (that is, a pregnancy that results in the birth of a living child).
- Induced abortion is not linked to an increase in breast cancer risk.
- Spontaneous abortion is not linked to an increase in breast cancer risk.
The level of scientific evidence for these findings was considered to be “well established” (the highest level).
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) Committee on Gynecologic Practice also reviewed the available evidence in 2003 and again in 2009. ACOG published its most recent findings in June 2009. At that time, the Committee said, “Early studies of the relationship between prior induced abortion and breast cancer risk were methodologically flawed. More rigorous recent studies demonstrate no causal relationship between induced abortion and a subsequent increase in breast cancer risk.”
In 2004, the Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer, based out of Oxford University in England, put together the results from 53 separate studies done in 16 different countries. These studies included about 83,000 women with breast cancer. After combining and reviewing the results from these studies, the researchers concluded that “the totality of worldwide epidemiological evidence indicates that pregnancies ending as either spontaneous or induced abortions do not have adverse effects on women’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.” These experts did not find that abortions (either induced or spontaneous) cause a higher breast cancer risk.
The picketers’ stance against abortion is presumably a moral one, at times supported by religious belief, and I’m sure that they have moral arguments that they feel they can back up their position with. Certainly, moral positions can (and in my frank opinion, should) be backed up with fact – but when the fact being used is a blatant falsehood, I am very much compelled to call that out. Especially when those falsehoods are being used to distress people who may be feeling vulnerable.
As a person who is strongly pro-choice and an advocate for bodily autonomy, it can be very easy to demonise anti-abortion picketers – especially given the outcomes of their protests; both the harm they cause individuals and the political influence that they hold. The use of graphic images disgusts me, harassment and attacks on both women seeking abortion and abortion providers should be dealt with strongly via the legal system. Something I try to keep in mind when I see them however, is that they genuinely do believe that their view is right – that they are fighting to save the lives of vulnerable beings. Alongside anti-vaccination campaigners who truly believe that vaccines are harming children, and religious prosthelytisers who honestly hope to save our souls from eternal damnation, the majority of anti-abortionists do believe that they are trying to stop a terrible and unjust harm that occurs within our society. It is rare that a passionate campaigner for a cause does so to do evil.
As such, I suspect that it is entirely possible that some anti-abortionists may know that the abortion/breast cancer myth is a falsehood. When I discussed my thoughts on the matter with Felix (who lacks a Twitter account for me to link to), he relayed to me an experience he had years ago, when a friend was trying to convert him to Christianity. Felix went and had a discussion with his friend’s minister and questioned the minister’s claims that homosexuality presented dangers to people’s health. When confronted with somebody willing to question the credibility of his claims, the minister actually outright admitted that they were false, but he felt that telling a lie was an acceptable and minor wrong when looking at the bigger picture; the fate of a person’s eternal soul. Likewise, perhaps some anti-abortionists realise that their claim regarding breast cancer is less than credible, but feel that it is justifiable to use it as a scare tactic in the hope of preventing women from having abortions.
It is a complex situation and I do not believe that I have the requisite knowledge or skills to have a productive conversation with anti-abortion protesters and be able to convince them that their claims regarding breast cancer are scientifically unsound and can not be ethically employed as a part of their argument. However, what I am capable of to a degree is publicly stating that their claim regarding abortion and increased breast cancer risk is incorrect – and in publicising that they are perpetrating a falsehood, I hope that anybody who has been misled by anti-abortion propaganda on this topic can be assured that it is an outright lie.
NB: I have chosen to use the term “anti-abortion” to describe what is also referred to as the “pro-life” movement, as I consider it to be a more accurate descriptor.
Abortion – Breast Cancer Hypothesis – Wikipedia
The Truth About Abortions and Breast Cancer – Cosmopolitan Magazine