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Should Docs Warn About an Abortion/Breast Cancer Link?

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Dec. 5, 2001 -- Should doctors add to the distress of abortion by warning that it might -- or might not -- slightly increase the risk of future breast cancer? No, says a new review of the scientific evidence.

The review takes the form of an editorial in the journal The Lancet Oncology. Author Tim Davidson, MD, argues that telling a woman about the evidence for and against an abortion/breast cancer link makes a hard decision harder.

Why is this an issue? Anti-abortion groups have seized on studies suggesting that women have a slight but significant increase in breast-cancer risk if they have an abortion. Many of these groups overstate the risk in their efforts to persuade women to continue their pregnancies. Pro-choice groups point to studies suggesting that there is no such risk. Both sides in the highly-charged debate point to flaws in the studies they don't agree with.

"In the absence of robust evidence that an increased risk of breast cancer in later life is relevant to her deliberations, a woman deciding whether to opt for termination or to continue with an unwanted pregnancy has a hard enough task without being made to confront the breast-cancer issue," writes Davidson, a breast surgeon and lecturer in medicine at Royal Free Hospital, London.

Davidson's article lays out the theory behind the abortion/breast-cancer link. It considers arguments on both sides. It concludes that the jury is still out. That's also the conclusion of the U.S. National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society, says Joann Schellenbach, national director of medical and scientific information for the ACS.

"The article itself will be very useful, because our role is to collect information from scientific research to give women guidance," Schellenbach tells WebMD. "This supports the idea that it is not possible to give guidance one way or the other because the evidence from scientific studies doesn't justify it."

This is hardly the last word on the subject.

"There is no other issue than abortion that would be so immune from the concept of informed consent," Joel Brind, PHD, tells WebMD. "What could possibly be more paternalistic to a young woman making such an important decision? Davidson wants 'robust evidence' of relevance beyond any proof of a link between breast cancer and abortion. If you don't have proof a woman is going to be concerned, you shouldn't tell her. That just blew me away."

Brind, a professor of biology and endocrinology at Baruch College of the City University of New York, is lead author of the most important scientific study to link abortion to breast cancer. This 1996 study analyzed data from 23 independent studies that asked women with and without breast-cancer whether they had ever had an abortion.

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