Abortion and Breast Cancer

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The Problem

Opponents of reproductive choice have been attempting to frighten women in recent years by touting a medically unsupported link between abortion and an increased risk of breast cancer. Despite evidence to the contrary and lack of support for the claim from research scientists and breast cancer activists, anti-choice organizations have been trying to disseminate the message to women through advertising campaigns, so-called informed consent laws, and even through the National Cancer Institute.

Research Findings

In 2003, the world's leading experts on the interactions between pregnancy and breast cancer met to evaluate the research and agreed that there is strong evidence that abortion does not increase the risk of breast cancer.

  • The strongest single study of abortion and breast cancer, a 1997 Danish study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, reported on the experience of over 300,000 women who had had abortions. It found that those women were no more likely to develop breast cancer than were the 1.2 million women with no history of abortion.
  • More recent studies -including two conducted in China -- have also found no association between abortion and breast cancer risk (International Journal of Cancer and British Journal of Cancer).

Even those scientists whose work is cited to support the claim that abortion causes breast cancer disagree. Anti-abortion groups have presented unconfirmed, disputed data as fact in order to advance their political agenda by exploiting women's fear of breast cancer. There is currently no scientifically-based reason for women to factor an increased risk of breast cancer into their decision about whether or not to continue a pregnancy.

Countering the Anti-Choice Scare Tactics

In January 1996, Christ's Bride Ministries, a pro-life organization, began running misleading advertisements in transit systems in several cities including Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and Chicago. These ads stated "women who choose abortion suffer more and deadlier breast cancer."

The public health, reproductive rights and breast cancer advocacy communities all quickly responded. Dr. Philip Lee, assistant secretary of health in the Department of Health and Human Services, wrote a letter stating that the ad is unfortunately misleading, unduly alarming, and does not accurately reflect the weight of the scientific literature.? The National Cancer Institute issued a fact sheet asserting that the statements in the ad "misrepresent the information in the scientific literature." And the National Breast Cancer Coalition, a grassroots advocacy organization, published a position paper which stated that the current evidence of abortion's relationship to breast cancer is inconclusive and pointed out that "the abortion rate has been fairly constant since 1978, while breast cancer incidence continues to rise."

When President Bush took office, however, suddenly the NCI removed the fact sheet from its website and replaced it with a statement that studies on this topic were inconclusive. Eventually, in response to overwhelming scientific consensus agreement that the evidence does not support a link, NCI posted a new and accurate fact sheet. This is one of many examples of the Bush administration's misuse, distortion or suppression of science for political ends.

Other anti-choice activists have found additional ways to use this scare tactic on women. Several states have considered, and some have passed, legislation which requires clinicians to provide women seeking abortions with information about the alleged association with an increased risk of breast cancer. Breast cancer and reproductive rights activists are working to prevent the passage of laws requiring the dissemination of medically inaccurate information and to challenge states that disregard the evidence.

Watch for Anti-Choice Scare Tactics in Your Community

The National Women's Health Network is committed to ensuring that women have access to accurate, balanced information about abortion and breast cancer. Watch in your community for the scare tactics described here, and let us know what you find.

Created: 2003