To the Catholic Herald: cancer is not prolife

Breast cancer statistics from Cancer Research UK:

  • In 2009, 48,417 women and 371 men in the UK were diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • 11,556 women and 77 men in the UK died from breast cancer in 2010.
  • In 2005-2009, around 85% of women in England survived their breast cancer for five years or more.

Francis Phillips reviews books for the Catholic Herald. She wrote in her blog on Monday 18th June:

Every so often I receive a round-robin email headed by a list of other women also emailed, in which I am charged with passing on the urgent request to find a cure for breast cancer. The latest I received last week showed a picture of a pretty little girl toddler wearing a T-shirt with the slogan, “Find a cure before I grow boobs.” It is a very good cause and I am sure that much medical research is going on around the world with this specific aim, even as I type this. Because it is so common, we all know someone who has died of breast cancer; indeed, a very dear friend of mine lost her battle with it some years ago, leaving three young sons.

So why do I pause before pressing the “Forward” button to send on the message of this obvious good cause?

Why indeed?

Because what these round robins never say is “Spread the word! There is a proved link between induced abortion and breast cancer.” In other words, the sadly high rates of breast cancer would drop significantly – if there were fewer induced abortions.

The idea that abortion and breast cancer are linked in some way is a popular campaigning tool in the prolife movement. (As are claims that having an abortion will make you sterile and/or mentally ill.) The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists takes the trouble to rebut these prolife memes on their website.

Dr Angela Lanfranchi, whom Francis Phillips cites as an authority, is a surgeon in private practice in the US who has become convinced that breast cancer and abortion are linked, and that using the contraceptive pill will kill you. The prolife movement loves her very much and gladly funds her “research” which routinely returns the answers they want. She has published studies which have been criticised and refuted. While she may have operated on many women who have had breast cancer, she is not an authority on cancer. The only other academic advocate for a link between abortion and breast cancer is Professor Joel Brind, whose speciality is biology and endocrinology at Baruch College and is also openly pro-life. Brind attended a 2003 NCI conference on whether abortion and breast cancer were linked and disagreed with the conclusions of everyone else there that there is no link. Brind and Lanfranchi together founded the Breast Cancer Prevention Institute (BCPI) in 1999 in order to have a pro-life institution to support their views that there must be a link. This is not good science: it is politics.

Study after study after study has refuted the claim made by prolifers that there is a link between having had an abortion and developing breast cancer. There is a report on one such study published in 2007 that drew Daily Mail headlines and to which the NHS published a response:

As the researcher says, there is a complex relationship between socioeconomic status, risk of breast cancer and risk of abortion. Socioeconomic status is a confounder variable. Women in England and Wales from higher socioeconomic classes have more breast cancer incidences and are also believed to have a greater “preference for abortion when pregnant”. They are also more likely to have their first children at a later age (another potential risk factor for breast cancer). The model did not take into account socioeconomic status and so could not examine this relationship. The researcher states that “if abortions had been examined in the studies of this social gradient, the role of this factor could have been made clear”.

You can also read a study published in 2005: Risk of breast cancer after miscarriage or induced abortion: a Scottish record linkage case-control study

The results of our study do not support the hypothesis that prior miscarriage or induced abortion represent significant risk factors for later development of breast cancer. Historically, much of the epidemiological data relating to the potential association between induced abortion and breast cancer has been generated from case-control interview studies. An important issue is whether such studies are subject to reporting bias as far as a history of induced abortion is concerned. Studies based on linkage of independent records are not subject to this potential source of bias and, with one exception, have not found a statistically significant increase in risk of breast cancer after induced abortion.

The “one exception” they cite is a study published in 1989. Many other studies have been carried out since. Studies which ask women who have had breast cancer if they have had an abortion are not considered as reliable as studies which look at the whole picture of all women who have had abortions and all women who have not had an abortion, and find if there is any statistically significant difference in the proportion of women who develop breast cancer after having had an abortion.

There isn’t. One such study was done on the entire adult women population of Denmark, and found no link.

This hypothesis has been tested and found to be incorrect.

Francis Phillips quotes some anti-scientific claims about the known-to-be-nonexistant link and wonders out loud:

how many of the millions of young, confused and frightened women who every year seek advice on their pregnancies come away unaware of the medical dangers of abortion – dangers that may come back to haunt them in later life.

Arguing that abortion is wrong is within the remit of the Catholic Herald: it is a moral position. (Not one I agree with.)

Making a false claim about “medical dangers” which have been consistently shown to be untrue over two decades of studying the claim is not a moral position. Not in any respect.

Over two days, the article got 56 comments, which – most unusually for the Catholic Herald were mostly negative and critical.

Some examples:

  • Sorry, this is utter nonsense. Any purported link between abortion and breast cancer (let alone that abortion is one of the latter’s major causes) has been dicredited again and again. This kind of fearmongering, flagrant disregard of evidence, and exploitation of a terrible disease, to forward your political agenda is nothing short of disgraceful.
  • First the background. Lanfranchi wrote her diatribe as the president of the Breast Cancer Prevention Institute. This organisation was formed by a Joel Brind. Brind is a pro life supporter. He had a chance to convince the scientific community of any link between breast cancer and abortion and failed.

    Lanfranchi’s article references several studies which are supposed to show such a link. The latest of these studies was published in 1996, so this is hardly new information.

    A more balanced and up to date review of the scientific consensus can be found at: the US National Cancer Institute: Breast Cancer Prevention: ‘Studies showing an association used recalled information in populations in which induced abortion had a social or religious stigma, differential reporting of prior abortion by breast cancer patients, and controls. Trials conducted in social environments where abortion is accepted, however, have not shown an association with breast cancer.’

  • ‘what these round robins never say is “Spread the word! There is a proved link between induced abortion and breast cancer.”’
    Because there isn’t. It’s a lie invented by extremists to muddy the debate. There are good arguments against abortion, but breast cancer isn’t one.
  • “The abortion–breast cancer hypothesis has been the subject of extensive scientific inquiry, and the scientific community has concluded that abortion does NOT cause breast cancer. This consensus is supported by major professional medical bodies around the world, including the World Health Organization, the U.S. National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in Great Britain.”

    I do hope that any woman reading this silly article, and who may have been caused unnecessary distress and anxiety by it, is reassured by the above FACTS.

    On a more general line, I believe that this is yet another example of misguided Catholics endeavouring to spread falsehoods which seem to them to suit their own narrow purposes, and to seek to ensure conformity to their own moralising beliefs by attempting to scare the living daylights out of other people.

    YES, let’s fight breast cancer (suffered by about 1 in 9 women, and 1 in 300 men) – but also let’s do it by funding and encouraging genuine research.

    It is shameful, I think, that Ms Phillips didn’t, apparently, look for the facts before posting this article.

  • If abortions caused breast cancer, so would miscarriages. I have yet to see any link between termination of pregnancy, whether induced or not, and breast cancer. Abortion is actually less dangerous to the mother than carrying a baby to term (here are some maternal mortality rates – see the dismal performance in the US (Maternal mortality: how many women die in childbirth in your country?) The most ironic thing about this is that usually the people who are most strongly pro-life when the life is a fertilised egg or foetus are also pro-war and pro-capital punishment. When does life stop being sacred?
  • There simply isn’t evidence to back this up, and as someone who was diagnosed with breast cancer in her mid-30s (never, not that it’s relevant, having had an abortion) I find this sort of scare-mongering nauseating. If you have a point to make about abortion then make it. But don’t use your views on abortion to ignore scientific evidence and spread a lie that women with breast cancer cause their own disease. The sad truth is that doctors simply do not know what causes most breast cancers. Unfortunately this means that people with their own agendas spread lies and speculation that are totally unhelpful for those of us who have to live with this horrible disease.
  • How dare you. How dare you litter the Internet with such malicious false information to further your own believes and political ideologies. this is a subject particulary close to me at the moment after having an abortion myself last Friday.

    This has been a very confusing and emotional time for me and a time when I and others need most to be able to find trying to find real support and factual information about what we are going through. But posts such as this have made the Internet a minefield of abuse & lies to the point that I have instead had to search for information regarding miscarriage in order to boycott this sort of post.

    You have not helped me, you are not helping others, you are only serving your own moral agenda. You are providing a perverted distortion of ‘advice’ at a time when women need it the most.

    ‘Scaring’ women into making a decision is a horrific thing to do. Alongside the tidal wave of ‘post abortion stress syndrome’ I’ve had to wade through everyday which is nothing more than a political lobbying tool dressed up the same as this.

    You have no idea the damage this does & I am thankful I know better than to buy into this, but fear for those more impressionable than I. really how very very dare you push your religion, politics onto people through your pseudo science.

The last comment posted before the Catholic Herald closed comments said:

  • Francis, how sad that many of your commentators are rabid-anti-Catholics. I think it is because you dared to speak out about Ann Furedi, the great high-priestess of abortion in the UK. Her acolytes obviously follow your postings carefully and then denigrate any replies which are pro-Church and pro-life. We should add these poor deluded souls to our prayer lists.

You can’t now respond to that article, or to any of the comments, at the Catholic Herald site. This is a highly unusual step: other threads have gone on for hundreds of comments. Was this step taken because so many of the responses were pointing out that the facts in this article were false?

But neither Francis Phillips nor Luke Coppen, the editor of the Catholic Herald, have added any update or any acknowledgement that the “science” Francis Phillips cites in her blogpost is false.

Contact details for the Catholic Herald are found here. Especially if you are yourself prolife or Catholic, but disagree with using an unscientific scare story proven to be false, please write to them.

Ask for an update on the blog post acknowledging this story is false:

And support Breast Cancer Care; Macmillan Cancer Support; Cancer Research UK;

….or Abortion Support Network.

6 Comments

Filed under Healthcare, Religion

6 responses to “To the Catholic Herald: cancer is not prolife

  1. Mary Jo

    Thought-provoking, true. To the author, know that prolifers would never wish for there to be a connection nor most of us use it knowing it was unscientific. As much as we love babies, the women and men affected by abortion are also our primary concern. Often, it is hard to find pure truth in all of this, but just a thought. Do you think the reaction in a body that prepares itself for a natural miscarriage is the same as the reaction in a body that has abortion foisted upon it? The scientific term, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” comes to mind. Do you really think studies that find no connection are pure unbiased science. Deliberately taking a human life is wrong!!!

    • To the author, know that prolifers would never wish for there to be a connection nor most of us use it knowing it was unscientific.

      I noticed that at the Catholic Herald, the vast majority of comments in response to this column were from regular readers – who tend to be prolife, conservative Catholics – telling Francis Phillips how vastly inappropriate they thought her linking of abortion and breast cancer was. That was heartening: I noticed that the CH then turned off comments, which was unusual for them. That was not.

      Thought-provoking, true. To the author, know that prolifers would never wish for there to be a connection nor most of us use it knowing it was unscientific. As much as we love babies, the women and men affected by abortion are also our primary concern. Often, it is hard to find pure truth in all of this, but just a thought. Do you think the reaction in a body that prepares itself for a natural miscarriage is the same as the reaction in a body that has abortion foisted upon it?

      As I noted in my blogpost – the original study that found a link between having had an abortion and having breast cancer was based on a small study of women who had all had breast cancer. No other study has found correlation between breast cancer and abortion. The largest study ever done, of a whole population of adult women, found no link at all between having breast cancer and having an abortion. The claim that breast cancer is in someway linked to abortion is disproved.

      Do you really think studies that find no connection are pure unbiased science.

      Yes.

      As much as we love babies, the women and men affected by abortion are also our primary concern.

      I don’t see any evidence of that in what prolifers do: I mean any evidence that prolifers “love babies” or that prolifers have any concern for women. The prolife movement has no connection to contraception, pre-natal healthcare, free provision of healthcare to all mothers and children, or any other political movement that works for the welfare of women and babies. The prolife movement has been actively involved in the US in opposing healthcare provision for women and for people without health insurance. I think that’s why the US prolife movement has been so keen to take up the false link between breast cancer and abortion: no concern for women who actually have breast cancer, no concern for scientific understanding of how human bodies work.

      Deliberately taking a human life is wrong!!!

      Prolifers killed Dr. David Gunn, Dr. John Britton, James Barrett, Shannon Lowney, Lee Ann Nichols, Robert Sanderson, Dr. Barnett Slepian, and Dr. George Tiller. Prolifers have bombed and otherwise violently attacked clinics where abortions are performed. The prolife movement in the US is a violent terrorist movement that destroys and murders innocent people in order to ensure that safe, legal abortion is more difficult, more expensive, and more dangerous to provide and to have. Prolifers show no concern for the value of human life.

      • “Prolifers show no concern for the value of human life.” What about the 50,000,000 plus human lives taken by abortion worldwide each year? Do you care about them?

        • Yes, far more than prolifers do, since prolifers make no attempt to prevent abortions, only campaigning to ensure abortions are more expensive, more dangerous, and less legal.

          • Well how’s about we work to abolish abortion altogether as the killing of human beings is unjustifiable. I am prolife and I do not campaign for the things you mentioned other than the last one, they should indeed be illegal. How odd that it is considered a strange position to hold that all innocent human life should be safeguarded by law. And to say that prolifers do nothing to prevent abortions is not true. I personally prevented an abortion by offering love and practical support to a woman who was planning an abortion and because of that there is a 2 year old lad running around today. My local prolife group supported her also with food, lifts to appointments and encouragement. I know other people who have done the same thing. There are real people walking around today who had been scheduled to be killed when they were in the womb but thanks to prolife outreach they are sleeping in their beds as I type this. Life is good. Love mums and love babies. Love everyone.

          • Working to “abolish abortion altogether” is working to ensure more girls and women die pregnant: prolifers appear absolutely indifferent to human deaths in pregnancy, despite the fact that when a girl or a woman dies pregnant, the foetus she is carrying dies inside her. Thus proving the point (if more proof were needed) that prolifers are indifferent to human life, caring only to work to ensure death, pain, and suffering in the world.

            To prevent abortions, obviously, the only effective method (aside from the unevidenced tales prolifers are fond of telling of claiming to have changed a woman’s mind) is to ensure there are no unwanted conceptions.

            Preventing abortions means working to ensure every child learns in school, as young as possible, that if they want to have heterosexual intercourse, unless they intend to engender a child, they need to use contraception – both partners, every time. Also, contraception needs to be freely and easily available to everyone, regardless of their age: and emergency contraception should be available at every pharmacist, and it should be unlawful for a pharmacist or a doctor to refuse it to a girl or a woman in need.

            “Prolife outreach” never involves going into schools to tell kids “use contraception!” Nor, I’ve noticed, does it mean campaigning against the current government’s austerity cuts to welfare support for low-income families. Nor does it involve campaigning for mandatory maternity leave, or higher minimum wage, or against the current government legislation that ensures immigrant women don’t get prenatal and childbirth care on the NHS, or anything generally useful.

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