Abortion-Breast Cancer Study Threatens Media Sacred Cow

By Michael Fumento


Copyright 1996 Michael Fumento

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I know that saying the media use double standards is about as startling as noting that large spiders with hairy legs are ugly. But every once in awhile along comes a spider that is, well, particularly large, hairy, and ugly and bites you right on the butt.

Such an arachnid has dropped from its web in the fuss and furor over a study appearing in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, which found that abortion appears to increase the chance of developing breast cancer by 30 percent. The team of four authors was led by Dr. Joel Brind of Baruch College, in New York. They estimated that 5,000 American women develop breast cancer each year as a result of having had an abortion.

Usually when the media hear something they don’t like, they just ignore it, hoping that their readers and viewers will never even find out about it. But this time, they attacked like piranha on steroids.

Among the headlines: "Abortion Foe Accused of Igniting Cancer Scare," "Abortion-Cancer Link Called into Question," "Abortion Link to Cancer Debated: Study’s Validity Comes Under Fire," "Disputed Study Links Abortion, Cancer," "Abortion-Breast Cancer Study Called Politically Biased," "Bias in Abortion Study is Charged," and "Conflict of Interest Charged in Abortion." (There were exceptions, however, like the Washington Times’ "Strong Abortion-Breast Cancer Link Revealed.")

Most of the media attack targeted Brind personally. They said he is vehemently anti-abortion; indeed, he has published in the National Right to Life News. Res ipsa loquitur, right? The thing speaks for itself. Toss Brind’s peer-reviewed study, which appeared in a respected medical journal, right into the fire. Hell, toss Brind in after it.

But not so fast. One of his co-authors, Vernon Chinchilli, is pro- abortion rights. Further, the Brind study has been praised as valid by such pro-choicers as Dr. Janet Daling, a Seattle, Washington epidemiologist. She defended it as "a fair job of compiling the data," and "very objective and statistically beyond reproach." Dismissing Brind as biased just won’t wash.

Meanwhile, back in January, 1991, Dr. Stanton Glantz of the University of California at San Francisco published a report linking second-hand cigarette smoke to heart disease. Coincidentally, Glantz’s study also found a 30 percent increased risk and Glantz’s study was also what’s called a meta-analysis. That is, it was based on a compilation of previous studies.

Yet Glantz back in the 1970s founded the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. Before his 1991 report he had referred to the tobacco companies by that very un-PC term "the bastards." Goodness, not even "love children"!

Every reporter who’s ever covered tobacco issues knows of Glantz’s activism. Yet Glantz’s study was widely covered in the media without criticism, but rather with such headlines as "More Bad News on Passive Smoking," "Study Cites Secondhand Smoke Peril," and "Passive Smoking `Is a Mass Killer."

In addition to charging bias, the media readily pointed out that Brind’s study had found only a 30 percent increase. It found experts to say that given the inexactness of epidemiology, a 30 percent increase may not mean anything. That is, indeed, the generally accepted belief among epidemiologists, whether we’re discussing secondhand smoke, abortion and breast cancer, or anything else.

But remember, the uncriticized Glantz study found exactly the same increase, and then the media said it meant everything. More damningly, a preliminary EPA meta-analysis on passive smoking and lung cancer found a mere 28 percent increase, while a later one found a 19 percent increase. But in both those cases, the media "ruled" that the increases were so obviously meaningful that it was unnecessary to consult any number of epidemiologists who would have told them otherwise.

Finally, some latched onto the meta-analysis aspect of the report. ABC’s Peter Jennings blasted the Brind study, saying "It is not original research, but an analysis of 23 earlier studies." Further, he explained, "the National Cancer Institute says those individual studies were actually inconclusive, and because of that, various other scientists say today the [Brind] report is flawed."

"Well, duh!" to borrow the term young folks use these days to mean: "Of course, you dummy!" The whole purpose of a meta-analysis is to lump together studies that individually are not conclusive, in hopes that together they may lead to a conclusion. Jennings may as well criticize the newest Air Force fighter on the grounds that it can fly and shoot down other planes.

Funny thing, when the Glantz meta-analysis came out, as well as both of the EPA passive smoking reports, ABC relayed the results on all three occasions to their viewers without once mentioning that there was a problem in meta-analyses or, indeed, criticizing the studies in any way.

What makes this whole thing so bizarre is that breast cancer, like AIDS, is one of those issues with which the media are normally obsessed. Publish a study showing a correlation between increased risk of breast cancer and exposure to any man-made chemical and reporters will knock down your door. But Brind’s work tied it to another sacred cow of the media, the claimed right to an abortion – and they just wanted to knock his brains in.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on cancer, on the media, and on abortion.