Cancer Study Exposes the Media’s Hypocrisy

By Michael Fumento

January 12, 1997
Copyright 1997 Michael Fumento

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Saying that the media use double standards is about as startling as noting that large spiders with hairy legs are ugly. But once in a while along comes a spider that is particularly large, hairy and ugly.

The media’s reaction to stories that they don’t like can be extremely prejudiced. Witness the furor over a study reported in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

The study found that abortion appears to increase the chances of developing breast cancer by 30 percent. The reseachers, led by Dr. Joel Brind of Baruch College in New York, 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. But this time, the media attacked like piranhas on steroids. Among the headlines: "Abortion Foe Accused of Igniting Cancer Scare," "Abortion-Cancer Link Called Into Question" and "Abortion Link to Cancer Debated: Study’s Validity Comes Under Fire."

There were exceptions, but most of the media attacks targeted Dr. Brind personally.

They said that he is vehemently anti-abortion. Indeed, he has published in the National Right To Life News. So toss Dr. Brind’s peer-reviewed study, which appeared in a respected medical journal, right into the fire. Might as well toss Dr. Brind in after it.

But not so fast. One of his co-authors, Vernon Chinchilli, supports abortion rights. Furthermore, the Brind study has been praised as valid by such pro-choicers as Dr. Janet Daling, a Seattle epidemiologist. Dismissing Dr. Brind as biased just won’t wash.

Meanwhile, in January 1991, Dr. Stanton Glantz of the University of California at San Francisco published a report linking secondhand cigarette smoke to heart disease.

Coincidentally, Dr. Glantz’s study found a 30 percent increased risk, and Dr. Glantz’s study was also what is called a meta-analysis. That is, it was based on a compilation of previous studies.

Moreover, back in the 1970s, Dr. Glantz founded the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. Before his 1991 report, he had referred to the tobacco companies by that very un-politically correct term, "the bastards."

Every reporter who’s ever covered tobacco issues knows of Dr. Glantz’s activism. Yet Dr. Glantz’s study was widely covered in the media without criticism.

In addition to charging bias in Dr. Brind’s study, the media readily pointed out that it had found only a 30 percent increase in the likelihood of getting cancer. They found experts to say that given the inexactness of epidemiology, a 30 percent increase may mean nothing.

That is, indeed, the generally accepted belief among epidemiologists — whether we’re discussing secondhand smoke, abortion, breast cancer or anything else.

But the uncriticized Glantz study found exactly the same increase, and then the media said it meant everything.

Finally, some latched onto the meta-analysis aspect of the report. Peter Jennings, prime-time news anchor for the ABC television network, scolded the Brind study "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 a term young folks use these days. 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.

What makes this entire controversy so bizarre is that breast cancer, like AIDS, is an issue with which the media are normally obsessed. Reporters will knock your door down if you publish a study showing a correlation between increased risk of breast cancer and exposure to any man-made chemical.

Dr. Brind’s work made the mistake of tying breast cancer to a sacred cow of the media — the right to an abortion — and they just wanted to knock his brains in.


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