WASHINGTON — The National Cancer Institute has recently stated again that there is no link between abortion and breast cancer. But don't tell that to Charnette MessÈ.
Messé, who is black, is only 32 years old and has a rather virulent form of breast cancer. She says it very straightforwardly and without hesitation: She has breast cancer because she used the pill and had an abortion. Now a Catholic and married to a Catholic physician who is in the Navy, Messé stakes her claim not on her emotions but on her medical records.
She is particularly concerned she will not live long enough to see her two children grow up. Because of this, she is committed to speaking out on the issue so other women don't have to go through what she has endured.
In late February, the National Cancer Institute, part of the taxpayer-funded National Institutes of Health, held a workshop to which it invited 100 scientists who had some expertise on abortion and breast cancer. This was in response to the request from some members of Congress to remove from the institute's Web site a statement claiming there is no link between abortion and breast cancer.
At that conference, National Cancer Institute director Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach said the meeting was convened “because the National Cancer Institute is deeply concerned and committed to addressing the problem of breast cancer.”
“We must assure that we are getting the most accurate information to women who are affected or who are at risk,” he added.
The workshop's introductions made it clear a number of times that this was a scientific conference that was to leave out all emotions and “politics” surrounding breast cancer and abortion. In fact, the second day's introduction by Dr. Susan Love, a pro-abortion breast surgeon and breast cancer activist, included the same warning.
But the warnings were disingenuous, critics of the National Cancer Institute said.
“It serves their purpose,” said Dr. Elizabeth Shadigian, an obstetrician and researcher at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. That purpose was to advance the institute's view that there is no link, she said.
Shadigian recently published a study in Obstetrical and Gynecological Survey with two researchers at the University of North Carolina on different effects of abortion, including breast cancer. They said even though the conclusions from studies vary on the degree of the link, even the possibility that it could happen is something women should be informed of before they undergo an abortion.
Dr. Joel Brind was not happy with the National Cancer Institute statement, either. He and three colleagues published a groundbreaking paper on this topic in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in 1996. This meta-analysis (a review of all the published scientific studies on a particular topic) found that women who have had an abortion have an average 30% increased risk for breast cancer. Since then, he has been the most outspoken scientist on the issue.
The National Cancer Institute does not appear to appreciate what Brind has to say. Its conference Web site mentions that one scientist dissented from the majority opinion and that that person had written a minority opinion. However, it does not mention who it was (it was Brind) or say where to find that report (see information box for links of where to find it).
In fact, Dr. Louise Brinton, chief of the Hormonal and Reproductive Epidemiology Branch at National Cancer Institute, told the Register she had not read Brind's report but that she didn't really need to since “I pretty much already know what he's going to say.”
Brinton claimed Brind's meta-analysis was flawed from the beginning because of the nature of these analyses, which includes many different types of studies.
Brinton stated that recent studies have found no link between abortion and breast cancer. But Brind and others find flaws in those studies.
Claims and counterclaims can be made about the validity of one study over another. Opponents of the link point to a study done in Denmark with thousands of women in it that concludes there is no link. But National Cancer Institute critics say it has a huge flaw — some of the thousands of women who were counted as not having an abortion actually could have had one because the authors put the date of abortion legalization in Denmark at 1973 when it actually happened in 1963.
Politics play an inevitable part of the debate, though critics would argue they are not the ones introducing them. “If they acknowledge this link,” Dr. Angela Lanfranchi said, “then that opens a whole can of worms for them.”
Lanfranchi, a breast surgeon in northern New Jersey, said that “can of worms” will be having to acknowledge the link between breast cancer and the pill. That's because both affect the levels of estrogen in a woman's body, which many researchers believe is the main cause of breast cancer.
Lanfranchi is a colleague of Brind's at the Breast Cancer Prevention Institute, which works on what most breast cancer organizations do not work on — prevention. The best way to prevent breast cancer, they say, is for women not to have an abortion and to have children at an earlier age.
But now, Brind wants to use politics to his advantage. He's pushing some U.S. senators to hold hearings on the validity of the National Cancer Institute's claims and what went on with the workshop. There were things that happened there, he said, that were not above board and were designed to ensure a set outcome.
Reaching truth by consensus is not the way to go about it, he said. In fact, he wonders how many times the National Institutes of Health has reached a consensus on a particular topic only to be found wrong.
Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz writes from Altura, Minnesota.