The incautious words of the Australian senator Eric Abetz linking abortion to breast cancer on a television show were still being digested when the calls began.
“Can I ask you something personal?” a patient asks.
“What’s the matter?”
“Do you think you could talk to my mother-in-law? She can’t stop hinting that my breast cancer is related to my previous abortion – it’s making me upset and worried that she now won’t help.”
I listen in disbelief as she continues, “I am sorry I hid it from you but I had an abortion years ago when I lost my job, couldn’t afford rent, and felt insecure about the future. I am not religious but it’s awful enough to be considered a sinner without being told that the breast cancer is a by-product of that decision.”
“Firstly, I don’t need to know about your abortion”, I say, thinking furiously about how to salvage the situation quickly. “Secondly, there is no plausible scientific evidence to back this claim. We can discuss how to approach your family but please be clear on one thing – although old reports exist, there is no proven link between abortion and breast cancer.”
Directly as stated that’s true. But the matter is a little more complex than that. For the greatest known risks for breast cancer is not to have carried a pregnancy to full term. No, not the abortion of one, but the failure to have had a child at all. That’s why breast cancer rates among nuns are so famously higher than they are among the general population.
Thus it’s true that directly, abortion does not lead to breast cancer. But if abortion leads to not having a child at all then the risk is indeed elevated.