Breast Enhancement
Health Research Being Politicized, Critics Charge

Advocates for women's health are usually delighted when the government spends time and money to explore the causes of breast cancer.

But some of them are charging that abortion politics, not science, is behind a conference starting Monday at the National Cancer Institute that will consider whether women who terminate a pregnancy also face a higher risk of breast cancer.The critics say the conference is the latest case of the Bush administration's skewing the nation's medical research agenda to please its conservative allies."There is hardly a breast cancer activist group around that can say that they're happy this conference is happening, or that this is a high priority, or that they've called on the NCI to do more on this topic," said Cynthia Pearson, executive director of the National Women's Health Network, a Washington-based watchdog group."The politics of abortion are driving the cancer agenda, and that's why they're having this conference," said Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, an advocacy group in San Francisco.

She said the institute should spend its time on more pressing issues, such as the search for better ways to diagnose cancer and the role played by toxic substances in the environment.A spokeswoman for the institute denied that the conference was sparked by antiabortion groups. She said its purpose was to lay out a research plan to investigate important questions about the effect of reproductive factors on breast cancer.Researchers have published more than 30 studies since 1957 on whether abortion and miscarriage raise the risk of breast cancer.

The conclusions have varied.Some scientists theorized that breast cells, which multiply during pregnancy, might become vulnerable to cancer if the hormones associated with late pregnancy do not arrive.But many experts say that fear was significantly diminished by a major Danish study, published in 1997, that found no elevated risk of breast cancer among women who had induced abortions. The study was considered highly reliable because it covered a large number of women -- 1.

5 million -- and relied on medical records rather than women's recollections of their health history.Partly because of the study, the American Cancer Society says it sees no link between abortion and breast cancer. It warns that "the public is not well-served by false alarms" about the causes of cancer.But antiabortion groups have highlighted studies that found an association, using them to argue for state "informed consent" laws requiring women to receive information on fetal development and medical risks before receiving an abortion.

In North Dakota last year, an antiabortion activist asked a judge to force an abortion provider to warn patients about the potential cancer risk. After three days of clashing testimony, the judge rejected the lawsuit.Now, some breast cancer advocates say the National Cancer Institute is aiding the antiabortion movement by holding its three-day conference, called "Early Reproductive Events and Breast Cancer." The meeting will consider a range of issues, including the role that pregnancy, miscarriage and other reproductive factors play in breast cancer.

"The bottom line is there has been some conflicting or inadequate evidence on this topic, and we really wanted to take appropriate steps to look at further research to enhance our knowledge in this area," said Mary Anne Bright, a spokeswoman for the cancer institute. She said the impetus for the conference had nothing to do with the goals of the antiabortion movement.But critics of the institute point out that until recently, the National Cancer Institute's own Web site said current scientific evidence suggested no association between abortion and breast cancer. It also said early studies suggesting a link may have been flawed.

In November, the institute posted a new statement saying that evidence was inconclusive. The change prompted some Democratic lawmakers and advocates for breast cancer patients to charge that the Bush administration had let political considerations influence the health information it was giving to women."I don't think anyone could say it was anything other than political pressure that brought that change," Brenner said.The conference comes amid criticism that the administration, more than its predecessors, is reshaping medical research to suit its political agenda.

The Department of Health and Human Services last year directed a panel studying protections for medical research volunteers to consider protections for embryos as well.When the National Institute on Drug Abuse asked the department to ratify its choice of psychologist William R. Miller to serve on an advisory committee, Miller was queried about his views on abortion and his vote in the presidential election. He said his nomination was rejected because he did not give the expected answers.

Calling for more balance, the administration has overhauled advisory panels on lead poisoning and toxic materials in the environment. Critics say the new members are too sympathetic to industry.Jan Platner of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, the nation's largest advocacy group on the disease, said she did not know whether the breast cancer conference was called to please antiabortion groups.But she also said: "There doesn't seem to be a compelling scientific reason for NCI to do this at this time.

There are many other issues that need to be dealt with. It does not seem to be a good use of resources."Others said the question of an abortion link to cancer was important, though not a research priority. They said that if abortion raised a woman's cancer risk, it was likely to be less of a factor than her age, genetic history, diet or use of hormone therapy.

"The risk is likely to be very small compared to other risk factors," said Amy Langer, executive director of the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations.One researcher invited to attend the conference said research into the implications of a woman's reproductive life was important, though she saw little evidence that abortion was associated with breast cancer."This is a very complicated issue," said Lynn Rosenberg, an epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public Health. "It's all about hormones and their effects on cells, this kind of thing, and it's a very valid area of research.

"One major question, she said, is whether pregnancy has a dual effect on the risk of breast cancer. "It seems -- and I'm not sure everyone would agree on this -- that in the first 10 to 15 years after a woman has given birth she might actually have an increased risk of breast cancer," Rosenberg said. "And then, as time goes on, she has a decreased risk. This is something people have been very interested in finding out why it happens, if it does.

"At the National Right to Life Committee, a leading antiabortion group, spokeswoman Laura Echevarria said she knew of no effort to persuade the cancer institute to hold the conference."But for women who have suffered from breast cancer to find out after the fact that an abortion they had 15 or 20 years before is a significant contributing factor, and nobody bothered to tell them -- personally, I think that would make them very angry, and rightly so," she said. "If there is a contributing factor, women have a right to know."By Aaron ZitnerLos Angeles Times - 2/23/2003Topic: Toxics



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