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Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D. Headshot

Abortion, Scientific Denialism and Religious Fundamentalism

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I have no doubt that what I write here will be misinterpreted. For that reason, I want to forego literary style and be absolutely blunt. I am not writing a column about abortion, either pro or con.

Yes, I have very strong personal opinions about the issue, but I am not writing about them now. Instead I am writing about another issue, an issue that has begun to play a role in the abortion debate, and an issue that undermines our society's ability to make rational decisions. Regardless of what many may claim, this is not a column about abortion.

My home state of Indiana stands ready to enact legislation that will require any woman seeking a legal abortion to undergo "medical" counseling. As the bill in the Indiana Assembly is currently written, part of that counseling must include informing the woman that terminating a pregnancy early will increase her chances of developing breast cancer.

Independent of any of the myriad issues that could be raised about this piece of legislation, the largest problem is that there is absolutely no medical data supporting the conclusion that legislators have built into the bill. The medical community, after extensive study, has come to as firm a conclusion on this issue as they have on any issue: early termination of pregnancy is unrelated to risk of developing breast cancer.

Many, including some legislators, prefer a different conclusion, but the data simply don't support their desires. The data are independent of religious conviction and political persuasion. The data provide no reason to believe that abortion and breast cancer are causally linked.

When wishes trump science, when desire pushes data aside, pseudoscience reigns.

Let's look beyond the rhetoric and at the studies themselves. The American Cancer Society (ACS) has a very informative page summarizing the largest and most important studies. Here's what it has to say about three of them:

The largest, and probably the most reliable study on this topic was done during the 1990s in Denmark, a country with very detailed medical records on all its citizens. In that study, all Danish women born between 1935 and 1978 (a total of 1.5 million women) were linked with the National Registry of Induced Abortions and with the Danish Cancer Registry ... After adjusting for known breast cancer risk factors, the researchers found that induced abortion(s) had no overall effect on the risk of breast cancer. The size of this study and the manner in which it was done provides good evidence that induced abortion does not affect a woman's risk of developing breast cancer.

Another large, prospective study was reported on by Harvard researchers in 2007. This study included more than 100,000 women who were between the ages of 29 and 46 at the start of the study in 1993. These women were followed until 2003 ... After adjusting for known breast cancer risk factors, the researchers found no link between either spontaneous or induced abortions and breast cancer.

The California Teachers Study also reported on more than 100,000 women in 2008 ... There was no difference in breast cancer risk between the group who had either spontaneous or induced abortions and those who had not had an abortion.

There's more. In 2009 the Committee on Gynecologic Practice of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued Opinion 434: Induced Abortion and Breast Cancer Risk. The abstract of that opinion leaves no opportunity for confusion:

The relationship between induced abortion and the subsequent development of breast cancer has been the subject of a substantial amount of epidemiologic study. Early studies of the relationship between prior induced abortion and breast cancer risk were methodologically flawed. More rigorous recent studies demonstrate no causal relationship between induced abortion and a subsequent increase in breast cancer risk.


Similarly, the ACS concludes, in no uncertain terms, that "the public is not well-served by false alarms. At this time, the scientific evidence does not support the notion that abortion of any kind raises the risk of breast cancer."

And yet Indiana is now poised to join five other states (Alaska, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia) in requiring that women be misinformed about this critical issue.

It's one thing to ignore well established scientific data but quite another to promote a position that has been demonstrated to be false. Those pushing this bill are, apparently, well aware that there's no medical evidence to support their demand that women be (mis)informed about the link between breast cancer and abortion. After all, they voted down a simple amendment that required that all information presented to women be "medically and scientifically accurate."

Yes, emotions run high when abortion is discussed - but that's no reason to lie to women in an attempt to scare them.

The rise in scientific illiteracy in society is a growing problem, a problem that has massive economic and health consequences. When some among us purposefully promote scientific illiteracy to advance their personal agendas, the problem is significantly increased. When those personal agendas are tied to religion, as they so often are in the debate over abortion or in the manufactured controversy over evolutionary theory, public passion is easily aroused. But arousing the public duplicitously should be acknowledged by all as the disgrace it is. Aiding and abetting ignorance via any means, but especially by lying, is immoral, even for those who may be doing so in the name of religion.

Women in Indiana and women across the world have a right to the best scientific information available. For politicians to require medical personnel to misinform women about something as basic as cancer risks is indefensible -- for any reason. That politicians opposed to abortion feel strongly about the issue does not justify their behavior.

This is not a column about abortion. Rather it is about those who would knowingly hijack science and willfully pervert its conclusions for partisan gain. We, regardless of our political or religious convictions, must make our voices heard.

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