Monday, October 22, 2007


"Snubbing cancer study will only hurt women Research showing link to abortion ignored by media"
By Dennis Byrne
October 22, 2007,0,1439666.story

During National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it is fitting and proper that women be informed about any newly discovered dangers, even as the public groans under the weight of all the warnings surrounding the mere act of living.

For example, a well-researched Chicago Tribune story last week disclosed that women who have just a couple of alcoholic drinks daily increase their breast cancer risk by 13 percent. Coincidentally, a new study reported that abortion is an important breast cancer risk factor, yet I couldn't find a word describing the research in mainstream media.

How to explain this disparity? I'll be vigorously advised that "most" studies disprove an abortion-breast cancer link. Or that the study in question appeared in a "conservative" scientific journal. Or that the study is bogus or unimportant. Or, more rudely, that the whole breast cancer argument has been concocted by anti-abortion rights advocates to make women afraid to have abortions. The issue is dead, I'll be notified. Kaput. Here I would remind critics that in science it's not who says it or how many say it that counts. What does count are the data and the rigor with which they are collected, analyzed and held up to a scientifically credible hypothesis.

So let's look at the science of this latest study, which appeared in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. Using statistical techniques and reliable national health data, the study of eight European countries found, to a statistically significant degree, that the incidence of breast cancer increases with the incidence of earlier abortions. The researcher, Patrick Carroll, used the same mathematical model employed in a 1997 study that predicted with extraordinary accuracy breast cancer increases in England and Wales from 1998 to 2004. Using that model, Carroll predicts that countries with higher abortion rates -- England and Wales -- could expect a troubling increase in breast cancer rates.

The Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, where abortion rates are lower, should experience a smaller increase. And in Denmark and Finland, where abortion rates have declined, cancer rates should similarly decline. Some will object because the study is "only" epidemiological -- meaning that it relies on a statistically significant relationship between the incidence of breast cancer and abortion to infer that one causes the other. The standard, but simple-minded, objection to epidemiological studies is that a correlation does not necessarily prove causation. That's true, to some extent. But, epidemiologists use correlations in more complex ways, combining them with a range of medical, sociological, psychological and other information to lead their research in the right direction, to support or debunk hypotheses, and toward solutions for significant public health

In the study of the abortion-breast cancer link, the working hypothesis is simple: For a woman who has not had a child before, an induced abortion is more likely to cause cancer because it interrupts the hormonal development of breast cells for later lactation, thus leaving the cells more vulnerable to uncontrolled and abnormal division, i.e. cancer.

The problem with dismissing the Carroll study because it is epidemiological is that you'll also have to dismiss a multitude of public health studies, including ones claiming a link between radon and lung cancer. These are the same epidemiological studies that alarmed millions of Americans, frightening them into buying radon detectors and creating a huge radon mitigation business. No study is perfect, and Carroll's shortcoming is that his data do not allow comparisons of individual women over time. But other major studies have, and according to one unchallenged compressive analysis of those studies, they show that a pregnant woman who has never had a child before and aborts in the first term increased her chance of breast cancer by 50 percent.

Science, by its nature, exists in an unsettled state. Evidence piles up on many sides. The public becomes unsettled. The media, as is their wont, avoid the complexities, especially when the complexities challenge preconceived or prevalent political notions. Instead of coming to grip with such concepts as epidemiology, they escape into silence. And ill-serve the public.

Speaking of media credibility, or lack of it, the conservative blogosphere is buzzing with the mainstream media's failure to report retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez' scathing criticism of the press in a recent speech. Yet, the media gave wide coverage when, in the same speech, he criticized America's conduct of the war. His criticism of the media would have resonated with millions who question the media's integrity and balance. Having been in this business for almost 40 years, I'm ashamed of and unable to understand my profession's utter dereliction when it comes to reporting its own failures.