Journalists, academics, and educators in the United States are constantly hounded by right-to-lifers, evangelicals, and creationists demanding that their opinions on scientific topics be given the same weight as those of mainstream researchers. The latest example of this is the right-to-life claim that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer.
In 2003 LA Times journalist Scott Gold reported on a new Texas law that required doctors "to warn women that abortion might lead to breast cancer – a correlation that does not exist, according to the American Cancer Society and federal researchers." According to the Columbia Journalism Review "Gold’s piece was hard-hitting but accurate."
I’m concerned about the perception – and the occasional reality – that the Times is a liberal, "politically correct" newspaper. Generally speaking, this is an inaccurate view, but occasionally we prove our critics right. We did so today with the front-page story on the bill in Texas that would require abortion doctors to counsel patients that they may be risking breast cancer.
The apparent bias of the writer and/or the desk reveals itself in the third paragraph, which characterizes such bills in Texas and elsewhere as requiring "so-called counseling of patients." I don’t think people on the anti-abortion side would consider it "so-called," a phrase that is loaded with derision.
The story makes a strong case that the link between abortion and breast cancer is widely discounted among researchers, but I wondered as I read it whether somewhere there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it.
As it turns out, there is at least one scientist who argues for the link – Joel Brind of Baruch College at the City University of New York. Brind makes no bones about his motivation. In Physician Magazine he writes:
I became a Christian in 1985. Having been raised a secular Jew, I found far more meaning in the Old Testament with a Methodist minister than I had ever gleaned from a rabbi. With a new belief in a meaningful universe, I felt compelled to use science for its noblest, life-saving purpose.
By 1991, I realized that my understanding of life was incompatible with a pro-abortion point of view. After all, using science to save human life had always been my dream, and thousands of lives were literally being thrown away each day in abortion clinics and hospitals across the country. My professional work in cancer research, while intellectually fulfilling and of some importance, seemed too far removed from the real job of saving lives.
After much research and debate, the consensus opinion in the research community is that there is no evidence of a link between abortion and an increased risk of breast cancer. According to the BBC a study published in The Lancet dismissed claims of a link:
Professor Sir Richard Peto, from the Cancer Research UK Epidemiology Unit in Oxford, said: "Some previous reviews on abortion and breast cancer have reached mistaken conclusions because they mixed together data from reliable and unreliable types of study.
"This is the first time that so much information has been brought together and the findings are more reliable than ever before."
In the United States, experts at the National Cancer Institute reached the same conclusion. The Institute convened a workshop on Early Reproductive Events and Breast Cancer Workshop in February 2003. In a summary of findings they reported that, "Induced abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer risk."
In the political arena there is less consensus on the issue. According to a report by ABC, "Women seeking abortions in Mississippi must first sign a form indicating they’ve been told abortion can increase their risk of breast cancer" and that "information suggesting a cancer link is given to women considering abortion in Texas, Louisiana and Kansas, and legislation to require such notification has been introduced in 14 other states."
You might think that it was a journalist’s job to expose the lack of evidence for the claims these states are basing their laws on. And it seems odd that the editor of a major metropolitan newspaper would disagree. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review (the major source for this post) Chris Mooney argues that:
The basic notion that journalists should go beyond mere “balance” in search of the actual truth hardly represents a novel insight. This magazine, along with its political Web site, Campaign Desk, has been part of a rising chorus against a prevalent but lazy form of journalism that makes no attempt to dig beneath competing claims.
How long will it be before anti-abortion activists in Australia try to bully editors into presenting unsupported assertions as if they were reputable scientific claims?