Friday, January 23, 2004

Abortive arguments

Does abortion cause breast cancer?

A group of Labour MPs has announced plans to conduct a survey of doctors and researchers in the UK to try to discover if there is a link between abortion and breast cancer. Claire Curtis-Thomas MP told the BBC that out of 37 studies since the 1950s, 28 had concluded there may be a link. ‘The risk as far as we are able to see is approximately double, and there are a huge number of young women choosing abortion in this country’, she said. There were 176,000 abortions carried out in England and Wales in 2002, with the highest rates among women aged 16 to 24.

There is no evidence of a causal relationship between abortion and breast cancer. The research quoted by Curtis-Thomas indicates an association between the two, but better and more recent studies suggests no relationship at all. Guidelines produced by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) on advice for women considering abortion state that ‘available evidence on an association between induced abortion and breast cancer is inconclusive’. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists concludes: ‘More rigorous recent studies argue against a causal relationship between induced abortion and a subsequent increase in breast cancer risk.’

Nonetheless, promoting the idea that there is a link has become a favourite tactic of anti-abortion campaigners. Veteran pro-lifer David Alton recently used a speech to the House of Lords to claim there was a link that might cost the government billions in compensation claims in the future. Interestingly, the MPs behind this new survey quote exactly the same statistics as Alton.

Two arguments are common. One is that abortion causes some kind of hormonal change which makes women more vulnerable to cancer later. But if this were the case, a similar increase in breast cancer would be expected among women who have experienced miscarriage - and research has found no such link. The other claim is that the availability of abortion allows women to put off pregnancy until their thirties. There seems to be evidence that women who are pregnant later in life have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. But women are choosing to have children later because it suits them to do so - the availability of abortion is simply irrelevant.

If these arguments were taken to their logical conclusion, campaigners would be calling for women to have children when they are teenagers, or not at all, because of the high rate of miscarriage that always exists - both of which sit uncomfortably with contemporary concerns about teenage pregnancy and the falling birth rate. The truth is that anti-abortion campaigners have lost the political and moral argument in the UK, and have taken to propagating health panics in order to further their cause. Women who need an abortion have got quite enough to worry about without unsubstantiated scares about their future health.

MPs launch abortion cancer probe, BBC News, 22 January 2004

The Care of Women Requesting Induced Abortion, RCOG

ACOG Committee Opinion: Induced abortion and breast cancer risk, August 2003

First published on spiked's Don't panic page.

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