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.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Road coverage in the UK

An interesting little aside in the Last Word section of New Scientist. The total area of roads in the UK is about 2200km2, or about one percent of total land area.

Not exactly overcrowded, then.

New Scientist: The Last Word Science Questions and Answers

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Obesity and big business

The Observer reports that the US is to block recommendations on sugar intake as part of the WHO's strategy on tackling obesity.

Here's the awkward truth. You do not have to be a big fan of Ronald McDonald to realise that much of what big business argues for is true - even if it is motivated by self-interest. Fast-food will not kill you or make you fat, as long as you don't stuff your face with it constantly. The fact that a minority of people do eat too much food is not to be blamed on their restaurants or their marketing but on the inability of people to regulate their behaviour.

The Observer | International | US sugar barons 'block global war on obesity'

Don't joke about security!

British student jailed in the US for making a joke about having a bomb at the airport. It's Kafkaesque.

BBC NEWS | England | Shropshire | Bomb 'joke' student jailed

London's transport price rises

Public transport in London just keeps on getting expensive. Tube fares in London have shot up in central London by 25 percent, bus fares outside central London have gone up over 40 percent. Basically, public transport is incapable of paying its own way, which has led to a massive budget deficit in London. However, the mayor's policies, particularly the congestion charge, have been pretty anti-car. But at least with a car, you get to sit your own space, listen to music etc, rather than being forced to stand for long periods or sitting uncomfortably in a seat made for a 1950s sized bottom. And that's when the system actually works, something that happens less and less frequently.

No wonder people are prepared to pay more for this added luxury and convenience of private transport. But that screws up the idea of cutting greenhouse gases rather, doesn't it? Or perhaps we're supposed to just grin and bear it.

Guardian Unlimited Politics | Special Reports | Backlash at £2 fare for one-stop tube journey

Spoiling the party

Safety first is the motto of our age, but it seems in many ways that in order to avoid danger, we are undermining the very things we were trying to do in the first place. This was brought home to me by a recent trip to New York and New Zealand where it became clear that avoiding risk was turning a pleasure into a chore.

Air travel today means a security check which gets longer and longer. No longer just removing all the metal from your pockets (including all those pesky foreign coins you will never get rid of), putting your bags and coats through an x-ray, and putting yourself through a metal detector. Now, it means removing your shoes, and being ready to be individually patted down and re-examined with a handheld metal detector, while your bags are searched.

All this is particularly galling when a man can pass through this process at Washington DC’s Dulles Airport with a pocket full of bullets and go undetected, a fact which recalls that scene in Monty Python's The Life of Brian where the best part of a legion of Roman troops runs in and out of a tiny house unable to find the group of conspirators hiding within.

Having made it to the other side of the pond, the humble visitor is then forced to queue up for an hour while various forms and passports are checked. The pettiness of this procedure is illustrated by visa waiver form I-94W which asks ‘…are you seeking entry to engage in criminal or immoral activities?’ a question unlikely to stop the criminal or immoral, only those with a sense of humour.

At least at this stage, UK citizens aren’t having the added indignity of being photographed and fingerprinted routinely, too, as is the case with all visitors to the US who require a visa. (1)

While you wait to talk to one of the famously miserable US immigration officials, take heart as your bag is sniffed by a beagle from the Department of Agriculture looking for contraband food. On my flight into Los Angeles on the return trip, this process triumphantly produced one half-eaten sandwich.

Last year, we saw the end of Concorde and the death of supersonic travel for the time being, but the fact is that air travel could be speeded up considerably were it not for the inordinate length of time spent queuing under a state of suspicion while entering and leaving airports.

Having finally cleared customs, I expected to be able to kick back in the Land of the Free. And indeed, it seems that some forms of risk-aversion haven’t completely overwhelmed America, judging by the 30 layers of pastrami in my sandwich from Carnegie’s Deli on Seventh Avenue.

However, the modern spirit of murdering a good time was much in evidence in Times Square at New Year. The most famous New Year’s celebration in the world has probably long since ceased to be spontaneous when there is the problem of dealing with half-a-million people all trying to be in the same place at the same time. This was compounded by security fears at an all-time high.

Indeed, one congressman, Christopher Shays, went so far as to condemn New York for continuing to hold its events under the threat of attack. He need not have worried because New York’s finest had the place locked down.

People started gathering at 3pm, finding good spots within crowd barriers knowing that at a certain point, they wouldn’t be able to leave. One reveller told the BBC, ‘I feel like this is the most secure place in the world tonight…I had to go through three checkpoints, plus there's the helicopters in the air, the machineguns on the rooftops, dogs sniffing the subways and they actually searched us coming in.’ (2) Party on, dude.

By midnight, some people had been in the square for nine hours, unable to get a drink or go to the toilet for the previous four or five. So, after a quick singalong to New York, New York, the square emptied rapidly. Given New York’s famous zero-tolerance policing, there could be no sly nipping into an alleyway to relieve the pressure, so a few hundred thousand people were forced to cross their legs on the subway home.

Still, at least New York had its New Year. In Edinburgh, and in other cities in the UK, New Year was cancelled due to bad weather, with party-goers sent home an hour before midnight. ‘We are just gutted,’ organiser Paddy Cuthbert told the Guardian. ‘Unfortunately, we had to take the decision to cancel the whole street party. Everything has been done with safety in mind. But the whole scene is just very, very sad. We are just gutted, gutted, gutted.’ (3)

Better safe than sorry, though. Perhaps next year, we should all stay at home and watch it on TV.

(1) Department of Homeland Security
(2) Revellers defy security concerns, BBC News, 1 January 2004
(3) New Year is cancelled, Guardian, 1 January 2004

Even the Atkins people bow to health orthodoxy

I've never been much of a fan of the Atkins Diet, mainly because it is dull and the people who are on it are made dull talking about it. But interesting to see how even those behind Atkins have been forced to come into line with mainstream opinion on saturated fat, saying that a maximum of 20 percent of calories should come from that source. So much for eating bacon, cheese and steak till the cows come home.

BBC NEWS | Health | Atkins diet boss: 'Eat less fat'