Barbara Kay: Tough questions on the health risks of abortion remain

There are health risks to abortions, a new study finds.

October is International Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Upcoming, November is International Preterm Birth Awareness Month. “Uh oh,” I can almost hear certain pro-choice stakeholders muttering: “Is she actually going there?” Yep. Fasten your seat belts, readers. Like they say in those corny action movies, “I’m going in!”

"In” is the political war zone of Induced Abortion (IA) research in which the contested territory are the links between IA with i) future preterm birth and ii) elevated rates of breast cancer (known as ABC). The links are there. Nations that proscribe abortion have low premature-birth rates and low breast cancer rates. Nations with high abortion rates have high rates of premature birth and breast cancer. But are the links causal or coincidental? An army of pro-choice obstetricians and gynecologists and their supporting institutions deny causality. A battalion of (both pro-life and pro-choice) researchers and epidemiologists producing reams of large-scale, peer-reviewed studies insist on causality. 

“Is she actually going there?” Yep. Fasten your seat belts, readers. Like they say in those corny action movies, “I’m going in!”

Full disclosure: I have no personal dog in this hunt (never had an abortion or miscarriage or preterm birth myself, or breast cancer). My views on abortion are not dictated by religious belief. Politically I’m neither pro-life nor pro-choice. Like the majority of Canadians I believe in regulation. Sex selection abortion, for example, really disgusts me, but even pragmatically speaking, we need regulation so we can collect the data we need for research. One thing I don’t believe is that the science on any reproductive intervention on a woman’s body — IA, IVF, surrogacy or whatever — is “settled.” 

My “ideology” is therefore pro-scientific research that is untainted by political correctness, and pro-informed consent. But our culture can’t seem to get beyond the “rights” aspect of abortion into the “data” aspect. Ambiguity around what is promoted as a risk-free surgery can dampen women’s confidence, obviously. But if the risks actually exist, what benefit to women is there in suppressing knowledge of it?

That is the main point I make as an interviewee in a new documentary film that just premiered in Los Angeles. “Hush” is dedicated to exploring the effects of internal politics on scientific inquiry into women’s reproductive health. To be more precise, the politics that kick in on one issue only: abortion. It’s actually kind of weird: There is no controversy surrounding the elevated breast cancer risks causally linked with childlessness, late-start pregnancy, early menstruation, the Pill and hormone replacement therapy. All these causes, known because of continuing research, have one thing in common — estrogen proliferation. But suggest a causal link between estrogen-proliferative IA and breast cancer — and watch the fur fly!

The film’s director, Punam Kumar Gill, a respected member of the arts community and a Chatelaine nominee for “woman of the year” has served as writer, director and producer on seven documentary films to date. She brings a deft combination of personal motivation and investigative acumen to her task. 

Gill, who considers herself a “product of feminism,” had always assumed IA was safe and without harmful effects. That changed some years ago, when the sudden onset of pre-eclampsia in her second trimester of pregnancy resulted in the spontaneous abortion of her baby. When she attempted to gather information on possible health consequences, Gill encountered resistance amongst health professionals to discussion of any risks. She was further troubled by the bromides set out by health organizations on their websites, as well as by the disparity in public policies around informed consent in different jurisdictions. In Canada and many states, as the film notes, abortion seekers are given no routine pre-surgery counselling, while 35 states mandate pre-abortion counselling, 25 cite IA-linked fertility risks, and five cite the potential ABC link.

What you will mainly see in Hush, apart from graphically illuminated revelations of research suppression amongst health organizations, notably the National Cancer Institute, is Gill talking to people, including amongst others: women whose abortions resulted in physical and psychological complications they were not advised might happen; an internationally prominent gynecologist who denies that IA involves any significant consequences whatsoever, and who considers continued research unnecessary; a breast surgical oncologist disturbed by her growing roster of patients with aggressive breast cancer in the 25-39 cohort, many with a history of IA; and a statistician studying eight European-Scandinavian countries who finds IA “to be the best predictor of breast cancer.”

Women’s reproductive health issues are the third rail of the medical profession. I rarely see an objective news article on abortion, fertility or female cancers that is not immediately either attacked or defended from a politicized perspective, rather than simply assessed on its own terms. I think Hush, which seems to me an objective overview of the situation, should be seen by pro-choice women, pro-life women and women who are simply concerned about themselves or their daughters achieving their reproductive goals with optimal chances for long-term health. That is to say, by pretty well all women.