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NATIONAL | summer 2003

Weird Science
If You Want the Truth about Abortion and Breast Cancer, Beware of the National Cancer Institute

Ms. Summer 2003

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When it comes to science, the Bush administration tries not to let the facts get in the way of its anti-abortion philosophy.

One of the most egregious recent examples: its attempted rewrite of a fact sheet about abortion and breast cancer on the National Cancer Institute (NCI) website. The NCI had posted the web page—which stated that there was no scientifically proven link between abortion and breast cancer—in response to a scare-claim made since the mid-1990s by anti-abortion forces. But after Bush took office, the information abruptly disappeared.

Following widespread criticism from medical experts, members of Congress, advocacy groups and the media, the NCI posted another version of the facts sheet in November, this time calling “inconclusive” those studies that dissociated abortion from an increased risk of breast cancer. Conveniently omitted was the most definitive work on the subject—a 1997 Danish study of 1.5 million women that showed no link.

"Should you be concerned? Yes, not about breast cancer risk, but about the way in which anti-abortion groups are exploiting women's fear of breast cancer." -Dr. Susan Love Photo by David H. Wells/Corbis

Andrew von Eschenbach, M.D., the Bush-appointed director of the NCI, downplayed the revisions, saying they represented nothing more than the pursuit of a thorough scientific review because “the data are conflicting.” Yet the NCI acknowledge that a factor in its decision was a letter from anti-abortion members of Congress, such as Chris Smith (R-NJ), co-chair of the House Pro-life Caucus, urging Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson to remove the fact sheet for review.

“You’d like to think that the NCI is data driven," says leading breast cancer specialist Susan Love, M.D., author of Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book. "With the Danish study, everybody in the field felt this question had been answered.

"The purpose of science is to figure out the truth. As soon as you start to limit that inquiry, you jeopardize the entire enterprise, and the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and the NCI lose credibility."

In response to an outcry over the fact sheet's alteration, the NCI assembled more than 100 of the world's experts (including Love) in the fields of early reproductive events and breast cancer. After a three-day review of the scientific literature, the group concluded that the strongest evidence shows abortion does not increase the risk of breast cancer.

The NCI then revised the fact sheet once again to reiterate what it had been stating for years. While many were relieved, others caution that this was but one skirmish in an ongoing conflict that has included:

* Weakening a Center for Disease Control fact sheet on condoms, which now stresses abstinence and calls for more research on condom's already proven effectiveness
* Restricting stem cell research to existing cell lines
* Stacking grant review committees in the NIH with homophobic and anti-reproductive rights members. Federal health officials have warned scientists off-the-record to edit out phrases like "sex workers", "men who sleep with men", "anal sex" and "needle exchange" from their funding proposals to study AIDS and other STDs.
* Appointing anti-abortion, anti-birth control advocates to the FDA's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee, including physician W.D. Hager, who prefers not to give birth control to his single patients. He participated in a petition drive to keep mifepristone (RU-486, the abortion pill) off the U.S. market.

“I continue to be deeply troubled by allegations that scientific information that does not fit a rigid Republican agenda is being suppressed by this administration,” says Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA.), the ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. "If the administration continues to manipulate science, it will be putting the health and well-being of average Americans at risk."