My first exposure to activists working to deny women their basic right of bodily sovereignty was watching film Silent Scream at catechism. This propaganda piece goes beyond misinformation. Fully-formed, still born babies are presented as the normal result of an abortion procedure; despite third trimester abortions being incredibly rare1, and actually illegal in most circumstances in the United States2. The narrative is rationalized by deceptive images of stillborn babies being recycled by groups, like Students for Life in their Genocide Awareness Project campus tour.
Anti-abortion activists want logic and facts as far away from this debate as possible. This much is clear from the purely emotional nature of their propaganda. They seek to paint abortion as a societal choice rather than a personal choice, a moral issue rather than a healthcare issue, and to erase the woman and her right to bodily sovereignty in every way possible. The deeply personal and emotional nature of abortion is why misinformation and myths are so prevalent and effective.
Breast cancer risk and abortion
There is no clear scientific consensus that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. All major, independent scientific organizations in the U.S. confirm this, including the National Cancer Institute3, American Cancer Society4, the National Institutes of Health5 and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists6. There have been a multitude of studies done on reproductive events and their effects, with mixed results, but anti-abortion groups use cherry-picked data to spread this myth. Similar selectivity in choosing which studies to include could likewise ‘prove’ that induced abortions actually lower the risk of breast cancer7-9. Studies that employ small sample sizes and unreliable self-reporting on stigmatized or even illegal acts lead to varying and contradictory results. The largest study done on this subject to date relies only upon the medical records of 1.5 million women, not self-reporting, concluded that, “Unscientific, fallacious, and fraudulent epidemiologic studies are unfortunately common.” Further:
Our study of a population-based cohort uncovered no overall increased risk of breast cancer among women with a history of induced abortion. This result is very much in line with the results of previous retrospective cohort studies, two of which actually suggested a decreased risk.10
Risks, complications, and infertility
All medical procedures carry risks, abortion is no exception. The risks vary from person to person, but rare is the woman who faces more risks from an abortion than she would carrying a pregnancy to term11. The risk of short or long-term complications from abortion, when the procedure is done correctly by a trained medical professional in a medical clinic, is incredibly small12. Likewise, women who have undergone an induced abortion are not statistically more likely to suffer infertility or complications in later pregnancies13.
The health risks and complications of illegal abortion, however, are well established14. Illegal abortions are much more likely to contribute to infertility, as they often use techniques more likely to leave scarring, and risks for complications, both fatal and non-fatal, are much higher. Women are less likely to get medical treatment for any complications, and are much more likely to deny having an abortion on their medical records when abortion is illegal.
Anti-abortion activists have a long history of using fear, misinformation, and threats to force women into carrying unwanted pregnancies to term. Nothing scares conservatives more than women being educated about and having access to a variety of options when it comes to contraception and abortion. The legal and financial roadblocks women face are substantial, but access to reliable information is yet another hurdle women face in an age of ‘pregnancy crisis centers’ and abstinence only education. Criminalizing abortion and shutting down all women’s health clinics that perform abortions does not lower the number of abortions15. It does needlessly put the lives of countless women in danger, and forces desperate young women to risk their lives by getting back alley abortions. This is anything but pro-life. Today, a woman dies from an illegal abortion every seven minutes16. As many times as it has been said, and it deserves to be said again: outlawing abortion doesn’t stop abortions. It stops safe abortions. It is time to set the record straight about abortion, because women’s lives hang in the balance.
1 Vast majority of abortion occur at 20 weeks or earlier: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/ss/ss6512a1.htm
2 Late term abortions banned in 43 states: https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/state-policies-later-abortions
3 “In February 2003, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) convened a workshop of over 100 of the world’s leading experts who study pregnancy and breast cancer risk. Workshop participants reviewed existing population-based, clinical, and animal studies on the relationship between pregnancy and breast cancer risk, including studies of induced and spontaneous abortions. They concluded that having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer. A summary of their findings can be found below in the Summary Report: Early Reproductive Events and Breast Cancer Workshop.”
4 American Cancer Society on abortion and breast cancer risk: https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/abortion-miscarriage-risk#summary-report
5 National Institutes of Health (NIH) on Abortion and Breast Cancer risk:https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/hormones/reproductive-history-fact-sheet
6 American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists on Breast Cancer risk: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19461458
7 Some studies have shown abortion actually decreases the risk of breast cancer: (under ‘What do the experts say”) https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/medical-treatments/abortion-and-breast-cancer-risk.html
8 Abortion REDUCES risk of breast cancers study #1 Kvale G, Heuch I, Eide GE. A prospective study of reproductive factors and breast cancer. I. Parity. Am J Epidemiol 1987;126:831-841 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3661531?dopt=Abstract
9 Abortion REDUCES risk of breast cancer, study #2 Harris BM, Eklund G, Meirik O, Rutqvist LE, Wiklund K. Risk of cancer of the breast after legal abortion during first trimester: a Swedish register study. BMJ 1989;299:1430-1432 http://www.bmj.com/content/299/6713/1430
10 Study of 1.5 million women: Melbye, Mads, et al. (1997). “Induced Abortion and the Risk of Breast Cancer.” New England Journal of Medicine, 336(2), 81–85 http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199701093360201#t=article
11 Carrying a pregnancy to term 14 times more risky than abortion https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22270271
12 Low risk of major complications in legal abortions https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25560122
13 Induced abortion does not elevate infertility or complications in later pregnancies https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6754410 Epidemiol Rev. 1982;4:66-94.The effects of induced abortion on subsequent reproduction. Hogue CJ, Cates W Jr, Tietze C.
14 Risks of illegal abortions https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2709326/ Unsafe Abortion: Unnecessary Maternal Mortality. Lisa B Haddad, MD, MA, Clinical Fellow in Obstetrics* and Nawal M Nour, MD, MPH Rev Obstet Gynecol. 2009 Spring; 2(2): 122–126.
15 Banning abortion does not reduce abortion rate http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(16)30380-4/abstract
16 A woman dies every seven minutes from an illegal abortion: http://www.womenscenter.com/abortion_stats.html