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A Woman's Right to Know the Truth?

Or should state tell women abortion causes cancer?
Jordan Smith, 5:36pm, Wed. Apr. 10, 2013
Illustration by Jason Stout

In 2003, state lawmakers first passed an informed-consent-to-abortion law, which included publication of the Women's Right to Know pamphlet, a handy document designed to inform women about fetal development and the hazards of abortion. Among those hazards, on page 17, is the assertion that induced abortion may lead to increased risk of breast cancer.

"While there are studies that have found an increased risk of developing breast cancer after an induced abortion, some studies have found no overall risk," reads the state produced pamphlet. "There is agreement that this issue needs further study."

But that language isn't true – and wasn't in 2003 – and women's health advocates and lawmakers have for the last decade tried to have the spurious link removed from what is supposed to be a medically-factual pamphlet. Until now that's been an uphill battle – the removal was rejected last session during the controversial debate over the ultrasound-before-abortion bill, and was similarly dismissed in previous sessions. If the questions coming from the House State Affairs Committee today are any indication, it may be that the time to excise the misinformation has come – at least that is what would happen if West University Place GOP Rep. Sarah Davis, also a breast cancer survivor, has the requisite amount of clout with her colleagues to push House Bill 2945 through to passage.

In response to a question from Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, about why the language was included in the WRTK pamphlet in the first place – "I assume there was some basis for us putting this in there in the first place," he suggested – Davis did not mince words: "I think it was based more on ideology than science," she said.

Indeed, that there have been studies linking abortion and breast cancer is unquestioned, but whether those studies are reliable or peer reviewed is another matter. As it stands, the country's major health care and cancer experts agree that there is no link between induced abortion and breast cancer, Davis said. Meaning, the information that Texas provides to women seeking abortion – in a stated effort to ensure women consider all the facts before making a final decision – "is inaccurate," said Dr. Lisa Hollier, who testified as a resource witness for the committee on behalf of the Texas chapter of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Also joining in favor of the measure are the Texas Medical Association and Texas Hospital Association.

Still, that mainstream support didn't stop abortion foes from testifying either that there is an actual link between abortion and cancer, or that it doesn't matter if there is a connection because all information should be provided regardless of quality. Indeed, New Braunfels doctor Beverly Nuckols, who testified against the bill on behalf of the Texas Alliance for Life, argued first that a major peer-reviewed study had proven a link (the so-called Danish Melbye study; Nuckols was wrong, however, as the study actually proves there is no link), then switched tactics by saying that carrying a baby to term actually reduces the risk of breast cancer. There is a "protective benefit" associated with carrying a pregnancy to term, she noted, especially when the first child is delivered before the age of 20.

"Are you prescribing pregnancy to [avoid] breast cancer?" Houston Dem Rep. Jessica Farrar asked.

No, Nuckols said, but "I'm happy to tell women who had their first child before 20" that that may lower their risk of contracting the disease, she replied.

Although other witnesses testified in opposition based on the idea that all information is, apparently, good information – even when it is medically inaccurate – Davis was not impressed. While the measure "may seem controversial" it isn't, she said. The bill is not about abortion, or being pro-life, she said, it is about what kind of information a state should be providing when it "so invades the doctor-patient relationship such that we're going to prescribe what a doctor says to a patient, then we have the duty to make sure it's based" on the best science available, she said. And currently, the information the state is providing is "not in the realm of science." And that "is patently offensive," she said. "I ask that we return to reality in 2013."

The bill was left pending before the committee.

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