Trying to dispose of a political hot potato, National Cancer Institute (NCI) Director Andrew von Eschenbach is weighing what to do with a scientific report that says having an abortion does not increase a woman's risk of breast cancer. Yesterday, NCI's board of scientific advisers unanimously accepted the report, assembled by 100 cancer experts during a special workshop last week.
The workshop, held in Bethesda, Maryland, came 8 months after 28 abortion opponents in Congress complained about an NCI fact sheet that argued against a correlation between abortion and breast cancer risk (Science, 12 July 2002, p. 171). NCI yanked it and called a meeting to discuss the current state of science in the field. The participants--including epidemiologists, physicians, and experimental biologists--had an animated discussion about miscarriage, lactation, and other issues relating to pregnancy, and how they might affect breast tissue and a woman's likelihood of developing cancer.
Several epidemiologists presented as-yet unpublished work, which built on existing studies, that found no connection between abortion and cancer. One team, led by Leslie Bernstein of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, is following more than 9000 women. She says that it has found "no evidence of an increase in risk." Bernstein reported that miscarriage, although not abortion, appears to confer some protection against breast cancer, which full-term births are known to do. She hypothesizes that human chorionic gonadotropin, a hormone that peaks 8 weeks into pregnancy before tapering off, may be the protective agent. If that's correct, she asks, "how can induced abortion be a problem" for cancer risk? Only one researcher, endocrinologist Joel Brind of Baruch College in New York City, argued in favor of an abortion-cancer link.
Von Eschenbach, left with little room to maneuver, must now decide how to handle this sensitive topic. An institute spokesperson says that NCI will consider putting an updated information sheet back up on its Web site.