Pseudo-science and Pseudo-sympathy in the Abortion and Breast Cancer Debate


Another year, another round of nonsense about a link between
abortion and breast cancer.  It’s
an interesting question to ask if anti-choicers are
misunderstanding a recent report on abortion and breast cancer
because they
want to or if it’s because they really aren’t sharp enough as a rule to
understand it (my sense is a combination of both factors), but one thing we
know for sure is that there is no such thing as evidence conclusive enough
disproving their claims that they will accept it.  The pseudo-scientific nonsense about abortion and breast
cancer has grown so out of control that even pro-science folks with huge
hang-ups about abortion
have had to come out and denounce the anti-choicers
spreading this myth.

All this going round and round on the actual facts at hand
is all very interesting, but between my links to Amie Newman and David Gorski
on this issue, I think the facts at hand are covered.  But what has always fascinated me—what generally
fascinates me when it comes to issues of pseudo-scientific hysteria—is the
question of why.  Why do
anti-choicers continue to flog this myth about breast cancer, even when they’re
shown time and again that there’s no link?  Why do they continue to insist that you’ll get breast cancer
if you get an abortion, even though the few, problem-laden studies that suggested a link showed a slight one at best?

At first, the answer seems obvious: They spread this
misinformation because they want to scare women off having abortions and
intimidate them into giving birth against their will.  But if you think about this for a moment, it doesn’t really
make sense.  Choosing an abortion
isn’t like refusing to wear sunscreen—most women who have abortions are
deeply invested in the choice not to have a baby right then, and a slightly
elevated risk of breast cancer (which doesn’t even exist!) will not deter them
from having to make a choice they feel they must make.  People make choices that elevate their
cancer risk that they don’t need to make all the time—we drink, we smoke, we
eat crappy food, and we go out in the sun without protection.  Some times we elevate our cancer risk a
lot for no good reason.  A slight
to nonexistent cancer risk associated with something that a woman feels she
must do for her immediate health, safety, and well-being is simply not going to
make a difference.

To hear anti-choicers carry on, abortion must be risk-free
in order to be an acceptable and legal choice, and since it is not risk-free,
it should be shoved underground and the risks attendant to it should be
multiplied.  Their reason for this
is presumably that they care about women. 
Care about women so much that they want to drive them to illegal
abortion and/or drive them to bear children against their will, which is much
riskier than having an abortion, since pregnancy and childbirth raise your
blood pressure, your risk of diabetes, and of course there’s all the dangers of
giving birth.  Their “care” for
women is very narrowly defined—it only pops up when it’s a politically
convenient cover story to excuse what is an assault on women’s fundamental
rights.

With all this in mind, I’m forced to conclude that the
reason those anti-choicers—a group of people that is almost unilaterally
religious and uses their “faith” as a political tool—enjoy trotting out the
breast cancer myth is because it’s an unsubtle way to threaten women who get
abortions.  In other words, they’re
telling you that if you get an abortion, God will punish you.  And he’ll do so in a highly misogynistic
way, going after a symbol of your womanhood, your breasts.

Of course, telling someone God will punish her is basically
a way to punish her, but hiding behind God.  The God of the fundamentalists seems like a really awful
guy: he punishes gays
for not hating themselves
, Haiti
for throwing off the bonds of slavery and colonialism
, and America for valuing liberty and
equality.
  Telling women
they’ll get breast cancer if they get abortions falls into this habit.  It’s just a way to heap pain on women,
probably because Roe v. Wade has made
it hard to just toss them in jail for the crime of being jezebels. 

The problem, of course, is that many women who get abortions
have absorbed cultural misogyny and sex-phobia.  We all have low moments, moments of grief and sadness and
despair in our lives.  And some of
us are inclined to wonder, at those moments, if we’re being punished for doing
something wrong.  It’s in those
moments that being told that God will punish you for having an abortion will
creep into your mind, to make your sadness worse and your suffering more
profound.

And that, I think, is the true purpose of spreading this
myth—not to prevent abortions, but to make sure that women who get them
suffer for it, wallow in self-hatred, and otherwise are punished.  Not by God, of course, but by
anti-choicers.  And of course, the
jackpot for the folks spreading this myth is that a percentage of women who
have abortions—as well as a percentage that don’t—will inevitably develop
breast cancer.  And the hope is
that in that moment of pain and weakness, when a woman most needs to be able to
buck up her strength and carry on, that her abortion will come back and she’ll
be further wracked with pain and guilt and misery.  For having the gall, when she was younger, to care about
herself and take care of her own business.

But they are doing this to you because they “care”. 

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Follow Amanda Marcotte on twitter: @amandamarcotte

  • kate-ranieri

    I’ve observed protesters at the Allentown Women’s Center obssess over the fetus using graphically obscene images and fetal models as well as attributing developmental qualities that are more fantasy than reality. Then they joined the abortion-breast cancer (ABC) bandwagon stating and restating their myths enough in an attempt to make it a reality. The expression "if you tell a lie often enough it becomes truth" seems to fit here. The ABC connection that they push is so outrageously illogically that it makes me simultaneously laugh and steam. If women have a "400%" chance of breast cancer, considering that 45 million women have had abortions, why aren’t there 45 million women and more (if that’s possible) diagnosed with breast cancer? If these McNasty folks really care for women, which they don’t, wouldn’t it be better to show compassion first then offer their version of counseling? Instead, in their desperation to "save" women or push their literature, they scream, terrorize, shame, and humiliate using breast cancer as another fetish.

  • atheist

    An interesting look at a strange phenomenon. It is useful to understand the perceptions of your opponent. That the “Pro-Lifers” would focus on punishment rather than on research does make complete sense, given their worldview.

  • julie-watkins

    !

  • rachel-larris

    David Gorski (whose whole post is a must-read for anyone who wants to know the science of the argument) posits another “practical” reason for the anti-s to push the ABC link. In addition to scaring women, it could also scare doctors who could be sued by women who develop breast cancer years later and want to claim their doctor didn’t tell them about the ‘risks.’

    You quickly realize there’s no downside for the anti-s who push the link. It promotes both their spiritual beliefs in how the world is ordered (God punishes you with cancer) and also promotes a practical “real” world deterrent.

  • cc

    Excellent article, Amanda. You really nailed it with your analysis of how these "pro-life" types want to punish women. I actually read (after which I need a nice glass of Merlot) some of the anti-choice blogs. Much of the conversation centers on how all women regret "murdering" (big sin) their "babies" and if they only turn to Jesus, their sin will be forgiven and they’ll all live happily ever after. But if they don’t repent, they’ll be punished in the afterlife. And if the threat of heavenly punishment isn’t enough, they play the breast cancer fear card. The misogyny couldn’t be any clearer. These people are part of a long tradition of women hating – a tradition that began with the Catholic church’s dogma that women "carry" original sin. It’s a patriarchal mindset that is threatened by women – particularly their sexuality. It’s a world view that sees women as smiling, happy breeders because if women are kept "barefoot and pregnant" they won’t challenge the male power structure. Those women who seek abortions are asserting their autonomy and that’s unacceptable. Ergo, they need to be punished. I actually read a "pro-life" comment which stated that those women who died as a result of back alley abortions deserved it because they were being punished for going against "God’s will." In working as a clinic escort, I have heard these "sympathetic" types scream stuff about "burning in hell." I actually read a comment, on Stanek’s blog, that justified imprisoning women who have abortions. Talk about punishment.The bogus breast cancer link is just another weapon in their arsenal of punishment. These people hate women. It’s really sick….

  • embell

    That is a great analysis of the underlying reasons why the antis carry on about breast cancer. As another clinic escort, I notice how much anti-choice protesters obsess about womens’ reproductive organs. The male protesters particularly, at our clinic, just love to shout about breasts and wombs. The Jesus-as-a-fetus apron, with its crown of thorns, is a favorite and, of course, the ultrasounds. On their planet, evidently, every pregnancy and birth is risk-free, every child is welcomed and nurtured, financial support is plentiful, and no mother will ever develop breast cancer.

  • cc

    As you note, these folks live in a mythical reality where "every child is welcomed." This doesn’t happen in "real life" where there are too many unwanted children and too few decent foster homes for those children whose parents, for whatever reason, cannot care for them. I do wonder how many of these zealots actually provide home for these kids. Somehow I don’t think the local Catholic bishop’s residence is full of "saved babies." But you raise an interesting point about the male protestors. My observation of them is that they are on the socio-economic fringe – as well as the psychiatric fringe. There are the old guys with the bloody posters and the younger ones who seem to have some real anger issues. One wonders what kind of dysfunction they came from and what kind of dysfunctional domestic situations they are involved with. Their obsession about women’s reproductive organs is very symptomatic of deep personality disorders which would suggest some deep sexual repression and, once again, hatred of women. I suspect that a number of the guys might have been sexually abused by "father" figures. It’s also possible that some of them are homosexuals; but because they are taught that their urges are sinful, they take out their anger and frustration on women who do have autonomy over the bodies. A clinical study of male abortion clinic protestors would be very interesting.

  • amanda-marcotte

    I’ve found is how many anti-choice men obsess over the idea that abortion and birth control let men "escape" from the responsibilities of sex.  It’s more a fantasy than anything else, and a lot of it is that Nice Guy fantasy, this weird idea that women are broken because they chose someone else and not you, and the man they chose is a Bad Guy and they’d be so great because they’d totally want to marry you and have you clean up after them, which is what women secretly want, right?

  • crowepps

    I’m sure it’s pretty chastening for them to realize how unimportant they are as individuals and how little power they have in the wider world and how being a ‘family man’ just isn’t as fulfilling as they were told it would be when they turned their backs on freedom and traded their autonomy for regular sex.  I can understand why they would look around at their declining health and the aging wife and the kids ready to fly the nest and be enraged.  They feel they were cheated, and by golly, the way to make things FAIR is to ensure other young men are cheated in turn.