Science or Pro-Life Scaremongering?
The Mail on Sunday's misleading and irresponsible coverage of the alleged links between abortion and breast cancer is just the latest in a long line of half truths, distortions and inaccuracies which masquerade as health reporting in some sections of the media. While some papers such as the Express meekly repeated the story the following day, only the Guardian and BBC Online mounted any significant challenge.
The Mail alleged two things. Firstly, research systematically shows a causal link between having an abortion and subsequently contracting breast cancer. Secondly, The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists supported this view. Neither is true.
The college immediately put out a statement describing the Mail's piece as "very inaccurate" and "the worst kind of journalism" and denied any suggestion that the college believed there was a such a link. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service also said that it was infuriated by the claims: "We are really critical of the story. It is misreporting comments made by the ROCG and ourselves". The BPAS also pointed out that they had received phone calls from women who had abortions 5 to 10 years ago and now were terrified by the Mail's story.
The research which was the main focus of the Mail on Sunday's report was that of Joel Brind, an endocrinologist at the City University in New York. His claim is that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer by 30%. Such relative risks (1.3:1) are normally considered insufficient to establish a causal connection in any case. The work is also based on case control studies where women have to volunteer information about whether they have had an abortion in the past. The problem here is that there is good evidence to show that people with breast cancer are more likely to admit to having an abortion compared with healthy women. Such biases could more than account for Brind's findings. In addition, there are other substantial, peer reviewed studies which show no link at all between abortion and cancer – something which the Mail omitted to tell us.
There is also something else that we should know about Professor Brind. He owns a web site with the address 'abortioncancer.com' which, apart from making exaggerated claims for Brind's own achievements, offers his publication 'Abortion Breast Cancer Quarterly Update' to anxious women for $45. His publications from 1992 to the present also give rise for concern. Out of his 17 single-authored works no less than 9 are in a little known journal called National Right to Life News, and 3 are in National Review. Brind's links to the anti-abortion movement are evident elsewhere. He appears quite regularly on platforms and at press conferences sponsored by pro-life groups. In an interview at the so-called University Faculty for Life in Washington when asked: "Joel, are you personally pro-life?" he replied "I am."
So, what we have here is a single scientist with a clear, vested interest in highlighting the dangers of abortion, whose work is deemed by others in more neutral situations to be seriously flawed and which is at odds with other more substantive research. The Mail on Sunday, however, chose scare-mongering instead of giving women the simple facts about abortion and breast cancer, and has generated quite unnecessary anxieties in the process.
It is precisely this type of cynical and damaging journalism that the SIRC / RI Code of Practice on Science and Health Communication has been developed to deter. There is clearly a strong case to be taken to the Press Complaints Commission and we wish both the ROCG and BPAS every success in pursuing it.