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FactCheck: Does abortion increase the risk of a woman developing breast cancer?

A paid-for advertisement on Facebook is surfacing on Irish user pages, claiming this is the case. We examine the evidence.

WHILE DEBATES AROUND the Eighth referendum are being heard out on television and radio in these final weeks before the vote, claims around the issue of abortion are also spreading quickly through social media platforms.

One prominent paid-for advertisement from a group calling itself Good Counsel Network Ireland has been surfacing on Irish Facebook user news feeds.

We won’t link to this ad here because it uses a video which some readers might find disturbing (it features the murderous doll character ‘Chucky’ from the horror movie series Child’s Play). The status on the video post, in essence, claims that having an abortion leaves a woman at increased risk of developing breast cancer.

This claim – that abortion can cause breast cancer – also surfaced in Ireland in 2016 when an undercover Times (Ireland edition) reporter was told by a crisis pregnancy advice centre in Dublin that “there are more breast cancers found in groups of women who’ve had abortions than any other group”.

As the Facebook ad from the Good Counsel Network Ireland is currently gaining traction, we’ll examine the information they are distributing.

The claim

The text of the paid-for post on Facebook goes as follows:

WOMEN ARE ABUSED BY ABORTION PROFITEERS LYING TO THEM AND DENYING THE FACTS, FOR EXAMPLE THAT ABORTION IS LINKED TO BREAST CANCER SINCE 1958! ( 77% ABORTED RATS GOT CANCER V. 0% OF THOSE GIVING BIRTH: RUSSO, 1980) COVERED UP BY A CORRUPT NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MURDER AND THE NCI WHICH BEFORE 2003 COVER-UP ADMITTED THE LINK….NO MEDIA WILL TELL WOMEN THE FACTS….

gcni Source: Facebook

The sources

The claim here “that abortion is linked to breast cancer” says that such a link has been in evidence since 1958. The post does not cite a source for this claim and attempts to contact Good Counsel Network Ireland to expand on this have been unsuccessful.

It is likely that this is a reference to the earliest-known study of potential links between abortion (in this case both induced and spontaneous abortion), which was carried out as part of wide-ranging research into common cancers in Tohoku, Japan.

Scientists here noted that there was a higher rate of breast cancer recorded among women who also said they had experienced an abortion but the researchers said that they believed they couldn’t draw any conclusions from this survey because of “methodological weaknesses” in their study.

Although their cautionary comments were usually ignored by later researchers when citing their report, the Tohoku team were explicit about their concern that the women in the control group, who were not facing a life-threatening disease, were less likely to report a past history of induced abortion, thus making it impossible to draw any conclusions about a cancer link. In later years, this phenomenon would be referred to as “recall bias”.

- Cambridge Medical History Journal (UK)

Let’s turn then to the only example cited by Good Counsel Network Ireland (GCNI) of a scientific study which it says backs up its claim. This refers to a 1980 research paper published by J Russo and IH Russo in Philadelphia, USA. They had studied the incidence of malignant tumours and benign lesions in the mammary glands of rats.

In the study, they used rats who had had a full pregnancy and lactated, rats who had had a pregnancy but not lactated, rats whose pregnancy was terminated early and virgin rats as control groups for each of those three.

These researchers discovered that there was a 77% higher increase of carcinomas in those rats who had had their pregnancy terminated early – this is presumably the figure cited in the GCNI ad. A similar percentage of the virgin rats however – who never experienced pregnancy – also developed carcinomas.

The Russos concluded – and reconfirmed in later studies – that in fact pregnancy and lactation was the protective factor against breast cancer, rather than abortion being a factor in causing breast cancer.  Also, breast cancer does not naturally occur in rats – in the Russos’ study, all of the test rats were injected with a toxin in order to allow tumours the chance to develop.

What is the research since the 1980 study?

The possibility of a correlation between breast cancer and abortion has been the subject of extensive study across scores of academic and medical institutes.

In 2003, the National Cancer Institute in the US assembled over 100 experts in the area to workshop all the available studies at the time. That convention concluded that the strongest scientific evidence concluded that “having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer”.

In January of this year, a meta-analysis by Chinese researchers of 25 studies from across the world into the issue found “IA (induced abortion) was not significantly associated with an increased risk of breast cancer”. You can read the full article at the Medicine journal here.

A representative from the World Health Organisation’s department of reproductive health and research, Dr Ronald Johnson, was questioned last year by the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment on WHO guidelines on the risk of breast cancer to women who had had an abortion.

Dr Johnson told the Oireachtas hearing that abortion poses ”no known risks for breast cancer, future reproduction or mental health”.

ronaldjohnson Source: oireachtas.ie

Conclusion

The best-available epidemiological evidence consistently refutes the claim that there is an increased risk of breast cancer specific to women who have had an abortion.

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists states that ”there is no established link between induced abortion or miscarriage and development of breast cancer.” The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists guidelines  state categorically: ”Women should be informed that induced abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer risk.”

We rate the claim that women are being “den(ied) the facts” and “that abortion is linked to breast cancer” as FALSE.

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