WASHINGTON -- In several states, women considering abortion are given government-issued brochures warning that the procedure could increase their chance of developing breast cancer, despite scientific findings to the contrary.
More than a year ago, a panel of scientists convened by the National Cancer Institute reviewed available data and concluded there is no link. A scientific review in the Lancet, a British medical journal, came to the same conclusion, questioning the methodology in studies that suggested one.
The cancer information is distributed to women during mandatory waiting periods before abortions. In some cases, the information is on the states' websites.
"We're going to continue to educate the public about this," said Karen Malec, president of the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer, an antiabortion group. She dismissed the National Cancer Institute's findings as politically motivated and maintained that the link has been scientifically proven.
The effort to write the issue into state law began in the mid-1990s, when a few studies suggested women who had abortions or miscarriages might be more likely to develop breast cancer. The warnings are now required in Texas and Mississippi, and health officials in Kansas and Louisiana voluntarily issue them.
In Mississippi, women who want abortions must sign a form indicating they've been told there is a "medical risk" of breast cancer. In other states, brochures say there is a link or that evidence is mixed.
Minnesota law requires the health department to include the information on its website, but the department backed down after an outcry from the state's medical community. Montana law mandated the warning, but the state Supreme Court struck it down.
"They can do further research on their own and determine which of those studies they should put most attention on," said Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. "We're just trying to provide all the information it's possible to provide."
In Louisiana there will be changes, said Bob Johannessen, spokesman for the state's Department of Health and Hospitals.
"If there is scientific evidence, and it certainly appears there now is, we would certainly make the necessary changes in that brochure," Johannessen said yesterday.
The issue continues to be debated in state legislatures, with bills considered this year in Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia.
On the federal level, several members of Congress complained last year after the NCI website included material suggesting a link between breast cancer and abortion or miscarriage. An expert panel that was asked to review the data reported in March 2003 that "well-established" evidence shows no link.
Among the studies cited by the panel was Danish research that used computerized medical records to compare women who had undergone abortions with that country's cancer registry and found no higher cancer rate.