This Warning May Be Hazardous to Your Health
A woman two months pregnant goes to see her Ob-Gyn for prenatal care. As required by law, her doctor informs her that her condition places her at greater risk for a wide range of medical problems: hypertension and diabetes if she is overweight; complications of surgery if, like one in four women, she has a Caesarean section; permanent weight gain with its attendant problems, including heart disease; urinary tract infections and prolapsed uterus if she has had multiple pregnancies; postpartum depression or psychosis, leading in rare cases to suicide or infanticide; not to mention excruciating childbirth pain, stretch marks and death. There are ominous social possibilities, too, the doctor continues, reading from his state-supplied script: increased vulnerability to domestic violence; being or becoming a single mother, with all the struggles and poverty that entails; job and housing discrimination; the curtailment of education and professional training; and lowered income for life.
No state legislature would compel doctors to confront patients with the statistical risks of childbearing, serious though they are; a doctor who did so on his own would strike many as intrusive, offensive and out of his mind. Should a woman seek abortion, however, anti-choicers are pushing state laws requiring that she be informed of a risk most experts do not believe exists: a link between abortion and breast cancer. Like the supposedly widespread psychological trauma of abortion, which even anti-choice Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop was unable to find evidence of, the abortion-breast cancer connection is being aggressively promoted by the anti-choice movement. (Even Mother Jones, always quick to take feminists down a peg, leapt on this bandwagon, with an April/May 1995 piece entitled "Abortion's Risk.")
"It's yet another example of efforts to encumber this legal choice and make it more difficult and painful for women," says Dr. Wendy Chavkin, professor of public health and clinical obstetrics and gynecology at New York's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, and editor in chief of the Journal of the American Medical Women's Association. It's also an attempt by anti-choicers to reframe their opposition to abortion as concern for women's health, something not usually high on their list. These are, after all, the same people who fight health exceptions to "partial birth" abortion bans and who have successfully prevented poor women from receiving medically necessary abortions with Medicaid funds.
Nonetheless, such is the power of the anti-choice movement that laws have been passed in Montana and Mississippi, and bills are pending in fifteen other states, mandating a breast cancer warning (and in some cases, a waiting period for it to sink in). Along with laws come lawsuits: In Fargo, North Dakota, the Red River Women's Clinic is being sued for failing to give such a warning; a 19-year-old Pennsylvania woman is suing a New Jersey clinic for her abortion two years ago, which left her, she claims, with an overwhelming fear of contracting breast cancer. In ferociously anti-choice Louisiana, a new law permits women to sue for damages--including damages to the fetus!--up to ten years after their abortion. Given today's high rates of breast cancer, a deluge of litigation is in the making.
Does abortion cause breast cancer? Some studies have appeared to suggest a connection: Dr. Janet Daling, for example, an epidemiologist who says she is pro-choice, compared the abortion histories of 1,800 women with and without breast cancer and found that, among those who had been pregnant at least once, the risk of breast cancer was 50 percent higher for those who had abortions--but her cancer-free sample was obtained through telephone interviews with women chosen at random from the phone book. Not everyone has a phone, of course, which raises questions about the comparability of the samples, and besides, how many women would volunteer information about their abortion history to a voice on the phone? Like other studies showing a link, this one was marred by "recall bias": Cancer patients are more likely to volunteer negative information about themselves than healthy people. They are looking for an explanation for a disease--and one many feel must somehow be their fault. Demographic studies, which are free from recall bias, produce different results: Lindefors Harris, analyzing the national medical database of Swedish women in 1989, found that women did deny their abortions, that breast cancer patients were less likely to do so--and that women who had had abortions were less likely to get breast cancer. The largest study to date, of 1.5 million Danish women, found no correlation.
"The supposed link between breast cancer and abortion is motivated by politics, not medicine," says Dr. David Grimes, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina. "The weight of the evidence at this time indicates no association. To force this on women is just cruel." Indeed, the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society and the World Health Organization, none of which have an ax to grind, reject the notion. The standard medical textbook, Diseases of the Breast, concurs. The main figure advocating the link is Dr. Joel Brind, professor of biology and endocrinology at Baruch College, who has done no original research on this issue but is a tireless anti-choice propagandist--plug "abortion breast cancer" into a search engine and the top half dozen sites are his.
Abortion is just about the only medical procedure in which doctors and patients are hemmed about by lawmakers. No other operation has legally mandated waiting periods, although many are dangerous, life-altering and irreversible; with no other operation are doctors legally required to give specific information--certainly not information that the vast preponderance of medical opinion believes to be false or at best unproven. Good medical practice calls for discussion of the pros and cons of particular courses of treatment, not burdening the patient's choice with unsubstantiated fears. Will we ever see a law requiring doctors to tell pregnant patients that abortion is statistically safer than carrying to term--which it is? Sure, the day state lawmakers put a waiting period on Viagra prescriptions, to let male patients really consider whether an erection is worth a heart attack.