PolitiFact Gets Facts Wrong on Abortion & Breast Cancer Link

PolitiFact put out a “fact-check” this week that purports to debunk the link between induced abortion and breast cancer. Instead, it provides a guide on how to hoist yourself with logical fallacies—namely, the appeal to authority (“it’s true because experts say so”) and the argumentum ad populum (“it’s true because lots of people say so”).

They’re not shy about this, either: “PolitiFact does not do medical or scientific analysis. We rely, as we do in other areas, on the most reliable and independent sources available.”

Now, the problem with the appeal to authority is that it’s an invitation to play “dueling authorities.” So I’ll do that real quick.

Department of Radiology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2005-2006): “Risk factors that have specific relevance to young women include reproductive factors, history of induced abortion or miscarriage, oral contraceptive use, smoking, and radiation exposure, most specifically for treatment of Hodgkin Disease.”

Department of Breast Surgery, St. George’s Hospital, London, U.K. (2005): “The hormonal changes that take place in pregnancy cause breast tissue to proliferate and differentiate. Abortion interrupts this process and may leave the proliferated, undifferentiated breast tissue at higher risk of carcinogenesis.” “There is no evidence to support a link between spontaneous abortion and breast cancer. Absence of a link with induced abortion is less clear, and further research should concentrate on investigating any relationship.

Department of Surgery, College of Medical Sciences, University of Benin (2005): “A protective role for xenoestrogens has been postulated and evidence is emerging in support of an increased breast cancer risk with abortion and prolonged use of postmenopausal hormone replacement therapy.”

Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2003): “Induced abortion is a prevalent response to an unintended pregnancy. The long-term health consequences are poorly investigated and conclusions must be drawn from observational studies.” “Reviewers were mixed on whether subsequent breast neoplasia can be linked to induced abortion, although the sole meta-analysis found a summary odds ratio of 1.2. Whatever the effect of induced abortion on breast cancer risk, a young woman with an unintended pregnancy clearly sacrifices the protective effect of a term delivery should she decide to abort and delay childbearing.”

University of Incarnate Word, San Antonio, TX (1997): “Early FFTP [first full-term pregnancy] confers protection [against breast cancer], while induced abortion confers risk. Most specific and controlled variables studies indicate 150% risk for abortions performed on women younger than 18 years of age.”

Then there’s Dr. Louise Brinton, the NCI researcher who helped organize the 2003 workshop PolitiFact mentions. Turns out she reversed her position on the abortion-breast cancer link in 2009. To wit:

A national study by Jessica Dolle et al. of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center examining the relationship between oral contraceptives (OCs) and triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), an aggressive form of breast cancer associated with high mortality, in women under age 45, contained an admission from Dr. Brinton and her colleagues that abortion raises breast cancer risk by 40%.

Brinton’s study, published in the peer-reviewed Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, shows an odds ratio (OR) of 1.4 for all instances of breast cancer for women who have an abortion. (For women who have never had one, the OR is 1.0—basically a “control” number to which to compare all the others.)  The OR is 0.8 for women aged 20-29 who have carried one baby to term. (Again, 1.0 for women who have had no children.)  For women younger than 20 who have carried one baby to term, it’s 0.6.

Put simply, increasing abortions was associated with an increased risk for all forms of breast cancer, including triple-negative breast cancer, which is especially nasty. And it’s not a matter of “breaking even”; having the abortion leaves you worse off than you were before you got pregnant.

(Keep in mind that PolitiFact uses the NCI, and the conference Brinton helped organize, to discredit the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer on the basis of “response bias.” The CABC addresses and disputes the “response bias” objection, but PolitiFact does not see fit to mention that in its fact-check.)

This is where PolitiFact would most likely move to the argumentum ad populum: “You may have some studies, but we have more studies.” Michael Crichton addressed this dangerous treatment of science better than I can:

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world.

In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.

In short, it doesn’t matter how many studies you have if they’re wrong.

So who’s wrong?

Well, aside from the data, there’s a big commonsense reason to suspect a connection between induced abortion and breast cancer. You can find it in PolitiFact’s own sources. I’ll use one of the National Cancer Institute links to demonstrate. (I can’t use the RCOG link, which basically says, Just trust us.)  According to the NCI, “[w]omen who have their first full-term pregnancy at an early age have a decreased risk of developing breast cancer later in life.”

So here’s the scenario: you’re a young woman, and you’re pregnant. According to the NCI, this reduces your risk of developing breast cancer. (It’s not hard to find a lot of material supporting this claim.)  But then you get an abortion … and your risk doesn’t change?

If you leave that pregnancy alone, it comes to term, thus decreasing your risk of breast cancer. But the NCI and others are going to tell us that cutting off a process that reduces your risk does not increase your risk?

With this in mind, it’s easy to see why even PolitiFact’s own sources are squeamish about following its lead in calling the abortion-breast cancer link “a ridiculous claim.” See, for example, the WHO link, titled “INDUCED ABORTION DOES NOT INCREASE THE RISK OF BREAST CANCER,” capital letters and all. The actual text backpedals quite a bit: “Two major studies have been carried out using this methodology [historical cohort study], and neither found an increased risk of breast cancer associated with first trimester abortion.” When you get past the theatrics—some might call it misinformation—the best you’ll get is “we didn’t find one.”

Of course, at least a few people “found one” when it came to puerperal fever (per Crichton above)…and the “consensus” threw out the evidence for 125 years. But no such thing could happen today, right?

Here’s the bottom line: PolitiFact’s own sources attest to the likelihood that carrying a pregnancy to term reduces the risk of breast cancer. An abortion cuts off that existing protection. Therefore, abortion increases the risk of breast cancer.

This is as close to “settled” as we’re going to get on this science at this time. If you want to play appeal to authority, reputable sources say there is a link between abortion and breast cancer. If you want to play argumentum ad populum, history has shown enough times that the masses are wrong.

We saw something like this in the debates over HR 1797, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. Democrats like Jerrold Nadler tried to dismiss the scientific evidence for fetal pain because it’s disputed by other experts (appeal to authority), or because it’s “an outlier” (argumentum ad populum). Abortion proponents flatly refused to address the information on its merits. So here’s what it came down to: We can’t say with 100% certainty that pre-born children don’t feel pain from a dismemberment abortion. We’d prefer that our society continue aborting them anyway.

Now, in the face of significant challenges to the prospect that there’s no link whatsoever between induced abortion and breast cancer, PolitiFact and the abortion lobby would have doctors say nothing about it to women considering abortion. Where less invested heads might go with “better safe than sorry” (to say nothing of “informed consent”!), the abortion industry, who profits handsomely off women’s ignorance, sticks with “better rich than safe.” And “fact-checking” abortion-supporters appear okay with that.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared June 25 on the Live Action News website and is reprinted with permission of the author.

Drew Belsky


Drew Belsky is Live Action's communications director. He is also the deputy editor at American Thinker. You can reach him on Facebook or on Twitter (@DJB627).

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  • msmischief

    I remember the Scandinavian study that found no link by the simple expedient of tracking the women for breast cancer for several years before they start to track their abortions.

  • Tony

    My sister, an infectious disease specialist of some considerable note and responsibility, has been telling me for at least twenty years about the link, and about the probable causes. It really is not that hard to understand in a general sense, though the specifics have yet to be determined precisely. A pregnant woman’s body is flooded with hormones whose action is to grow tissue and to change the function of existing tissue (for instance, in the breasts). All of this is a natural development. Now then, if the object of the growth hormones’ action is unnaturally and suddenly removed or cut short, what happens then? What happens to breast tissue in mid-alteration? The phenomenon of miscarriage is different, precisely because the hormones are not in full action.

    • Traddy pariah

      How are “the hormones not in full action” in a miscarriage vs. abortion. The hormones of pregnancy are the same. Always.

      • Tony

        I am guessing that you mean, “What is the difference in hormonal action in the case of a woman who miscarries, from that in a woman who procures an abortion?” The body of the woman who miscarries is already preparing for the miscarriage, or, to look at it from the other point of view, is not sufficiently prepared for pregnancy. That is, the miscarriage is either due to the failure of the operative hormones, or is accompanied by their failure. Her body is not undergoing the changes necessary to bring a child to term. That is not the case with the woman who procures the abortion.

  • Traddy Pariah

    Obviously the person who wrote this article can’t read. One of the links above says “There is no evidence to support a link between spontaneous abortion and breast cancer. Absence of a link with induced abortion is less clear, and further research should concentrate on investigating any relationship. We suggest that prospective research is used, with point of entry at first termination.”

    It is a common feature of pro-life writers that they not only know no science or how it is done but do not understand how epidemiology is done either.

    • Drew Belsky

      It looks like you missed the point of the entire article. I can’t be 100% sure, though, because you haven’t actually made a respectable point of your own.

      Care to explain “how science is done”?

    • Augustus

      Last time I looked, the pro-life movement was not campaigning to outlaw miscarriages (“spontaneous abortion”). What this article does concern itself with is “induced abortion.” And since the quoted paragraph above points out that a link between induced abortion and breast cancer can not be denied with certainty, it does raise the question as to who really can’t read. I’d say “Traddy Pariah” wins that prize.

      • Traddy Parish

        The “quoted paragraph” is in fact from the abstract. I have seen false articles like this numerous times and the point has already been made, lying about something for convenience is never good policy.

        If you actually look up the other links in the article you will see they say the same thing. Articles like this put in links, relying on people’s laziness and ignorance. I am a scientist and spend 40 hours a week reading scientific journals, these journals are not written for lay people. For example, as has been noted above, one must know the difference between spontaneous and induced abortion.

        Abortion will be stopped for moral reasons, not scientific ones.

        • Augustus

          You are not a scientist. You are a fraud and a pretty transparent one too. 1) The article linked to several news stories that reported on studies that contradicted the claims of Politifact. If the news articles are inaccurate, then your quarrel is with the reporters. But you do not provide a shred of evidence that they are not accurate. Nor do you provide any evidence that the statements from the conference you mention are inaccurate either. All you provide is innuendo. I suppose we should ban scientific conferences since we learn nothing from them. And while we are at it, let’s ban science reporters. What do they know anyway? 2) The abstract quoted in the article is in fact a “quoted paragraph.” Your semantics get you nowhere. If you object to abstracts as a source, then say so. If you do then your quarrel is with the National Institutes of Health for providing the database, not the author of this article. You claim falsehood but provide no evidence. Should we accept what you say merely based on your authority, Mr. Scientist? Is that “how science is done,” through lies and innuendo rather than through experimentation and research? 3) Are you saying that a spontaneous abortion is not a miscarriage as I pointed out? Every scientific dictionary will confirm what I said. The fact is irrelevant to the article since the burden of the author was to show that this debate is not settled, NOT that there is an undisputed link between abortion and breast cancer. Maybe you would have figured that out if you could read.

          • Traddy Parish

            No. You are getting all emotional and resorting to an ad hominem attack. I am a scientist, and I know what I am talking about. About scientific conferences, I have presented my own research at them but they are what they are, a forum for people to see what others are doing and to converse in an informal environment.

            I offer no innuendo, what I offer is my expertise in epidemiology. This article above is badly flawed and appeals to the emotions. Until a link is made between cancer and abortion the facts remain the facts, there is none.

            PS- Mr. Scientist is an improper way to address a person in this venue and shows you have been taken over by your emotions.

          • Traddy Parish

            And by the way, this online magazine has become more and more a tabloid, equivalent to the National Enquirer.

          • Traddy pariah

            Obviously you are confused about the difference between a spontaneous abortion and an induced abortion.

      • Traddy Pariah

        Also the article refers to a nonscientific news source that refers to results given at a conference. Results presented at conferences are by definition not peer reviewed. The purpose of a scientific conference is to provide a venue for presentation of such research results.

        This article also uses a couple of logical fallacies (you can look for them for fun).

      • Traddy pariah

        That’s because I seem to be one of the three people here who is a scientist.

  • Jacqueline C. Harvey, Ph.D.

    “If you leave that pregnancy alone, it comes to term, thus decreasing
    your risk of breast cancer. But the NCI and others are going to tell us
    that cutting off a process that reduces your risk does not increase your risk?”

    This is not illogical. Think about it this way: I have a 50% chance of getting breast cancer. Having a full-term pregnancy would lower that chance to 25%- I do not have a full term pregnancy (either from not conceiving, miscarriage or abortion), then I still have a 50% chance. It does not go up to 75%.

    However, abortion does unnaturally interrupt the creation of milk-producing cells through the surge of hormones during pregnancy without the final transformation into lactating cells after the baby is born. This makes them cancer prone. Women who never conceive do not have the protection of mature cells and most miscarriages are due to a lack of the hormones that morph breast cells initially. But an abortion artificially stops this process and leaves mutated breast cells- so this is the theory for the increased risk.

    But you don’t increase a risk by failing to decrease it so the NCI is not illogical there.

    • JM

      It makes no sense to compare the cancer risk between a woman who wasn’t pregnant to a woman who was and had an abortion. Once you are pregnant you can’t magically become unpregnant you either have the baby, miscarry, or induce abortion. You also wouldn’t be able to have an abortion without first being pregant. It only makes since to compare the cancer risk among women from the various possibilities after the woman gets pregnant. Even using your numbers, a women who carries a baby to term has a 25% chance of cancer, while a woman who has an abortion has a 50% chance. 50% > 25% so abortion has increased a woman’s chance of cancer.

      • Jacqueline C. Harvey, Ph.D.

        This is not logical. Failure to DECREASE existing risk does not INCREASE the risk, it simply leaves it at the same level. If I have a risk of 50% and I fail to lower it- it is still 50%- It is not 51%- That would be an increase. 49% would be a decrease. 50% is neither a decrease nor an increase.

        I do believe abortion DOES increase risk, but your logic is flawed when you say that a risk is increased by failing to decrease it. A risk is increased by INCREASING IT. Failing to decrease it means it remains the same. Think of it this way: if I have 100 painful sores and reject something that would lower that number to 50 sores, I still have 100 sores: NOT 101 or greater. So I did not increase my malady by refusing to decrease it. This is logic.

        • JM

          Your “100 sores” anology doesn’t work. In that case, not taking action and allowing nature to run its natural course leaves you with 100 sores. Birth is the natural result of pregnancy, not induced abortion.
          To make your analogy work it would have to be set up like this. You have 100 sores and an unrelated health problem. If you do nothing the # of sores will reduce to 50 or less over time and the unrelated health problem will eventually take care of itself. However, there is a new treatment for the unrelated health problem but a side effect is that your sores will no longer heal on their own as well and you will end up keeping the 100 sores on your body. Thus, the treatement can be said to have a side effect in that it will increase the risk of keeping more of the painful sores on your body.

  • dch2

    Ignore stupid political sources – just go to medical data.

    NIH / National Cancer Institute

    “The relationship between induced and spontaneous abortion and breast cancer risk has been the subject of extensive research beginning in the late 1950s. Until the mid-1990s, the evidence was inconsistent. Findings from some studies suggested there was no increase in risk of breast cancer among women who had had an abortion, while findings from other studies suggested there was an increased risk. Most of these studies, however, were flawed in a number of ways that can lead to unreliable results. Only a small number of women were included in many of these studies, and for most, the data were collected only after breast cancer had been diagnosed, and women’s histories of miscarriage and abortion were based on their “self-report” rather than on their medical records. Since then, better-designed studies have been conducted. These newer studies examined large numbers of women, collected data before breast cancer was found, and gathered medical history information from medical records rather than simply from self-reports, thereby generating more reliable findings. The newer studies consistently showed no association between induced and spontaneous abortions and breast cancer risk.”

    Read it slowly. No link found. Its fine to oppose abortion on moral ground, its not ok to lie to make doctors lie to their patients.

  • WalterPaulKomarnicki

    when cognitive dissonance meets invincible ignorance, no amount of scientific evidence will ever convince the closedminded and hardhearted.

    Maybe prayer and fasting.

    and the grace and mercy of God.

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  • Corey

    Eh, I feel like you’re fudging. At best you’ve demonstrated that having an abortion and not having children at all are equivalent as far as breast cancer risk is concerned.