Why It Doesn’t Matter Whether Abortion Causes Breast Cancer

People trying to make the case against abortion should stop saying this.  Please.

First of all, it’s not true, as this fact sheet from the American Cancer Society explains.

Second of all, the Catholic Church teaches that abortion is wrong because it is always wrong to directly kill a fetus.  No matter what.  This means that consequences and circumstances are irrelevant to assessing the morality of abortion. Even to save the life of the mother; even if, without an abortion, the mother and fetus would die anyway.  Even if carrying the pregnancy to term would cause grave psychological, physical, or emotional damage or suffering to the mother.  Even if the woman was raped.  Even if the mother is a 9 year old girl who was raped by her step father.

In other words, the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion has nothing to do with a weighing of costs and benefits; instead it rests entirely upon the notion that nothing can justify or compensate for ending the life of a fetus.   Also, if the debate about the morality of abortion is framed in terms of costs and benefits, I think that those wishing to argue that abortion is always wrong will not fare well: for every woman who claims to have been harmed by having an abortion, there is at least one more who testifies to having benefitted, sometimes tremendously, from having an abortion.  For every women who is haunted by grief at her decision to abort, there is at least one more who still thinks her decision to abort was the right one just as there are women who do not think of it at all.

Third of all, it is just bad thinking.  Although abortion does not increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer, not having children does increase this risk.  So, does that mean women should not become nuns?  Or that women seeking to become vowed religious should be warned that their lifestyle choice might be bad for their health?  Moreover, what if it were determined that abortion actually lowers a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer, should the church then change its teaching?  Also, in many parts of the world, and until very recently in the industrialized West, pregnancy itself was very very dangerous.  In other words, in general, for the vast majority of human history, it would have been “safer” for a woman to not get pregnant in the first place or to not carry her pregnancy to term than it would be for her to actually give birth.

Finally, since the church’s argument against abortion is not about what’s “good,” either objectively or subjectively, for the woman, attempts to argue that “abortion is bad for women” are likely to be perceived as being insincere.

However, perhaps we should also interpret attempts to prove that abortion is bad for women as evidence of the existence of a sort of discomfort with this aspect of church teaching–as a sort of recognition that church teaching should be about women as well as the unborn, or that there is something amiss when what is good for the unborn is not also good for their mothers.

NOTE: While there is no causal link between abortion and breast cancer, there is a link between racial injustice and breast cancer.  While white women are slightly more likely than black women to get breast cancer, black women are significantly more likely than white women to die from breast cancer.

17 thoughts on “Why It Doesn’t Matter Whether Abortion Causes Breast Cancer

  1. I agree that health-based arguments against abortion are misguided within a Catholic context– since, as you point out, they are neither here nor there when it comes to the morality of abortion according to the Catholic tradition– they may have a place when arguing about the morality of abortion with non-Catholics who do not agree with some of the premises of the Church’s reasoning against abortion. The Church and other opponents of abortion should use any arguments available to persuade abortion’s proponents of the immorality of abortion. If an abortion opponent does not think the fetus has a right to life, arguments from that premise will be to no effect. Arguments about the psychological and physical welfare of women who have had abortions, however, may be somewhat persuasive. There is still a danger, I suppose, in that someone might come to think that apart from health concerns there is no moral objection to abortion.

    I do have to disagree, or at least express some reservation about, your claim that “the Catholic argument against abortion is not about what’s ‘good,’ either objectively or subjectively, for the woman.” This is somewhat misleading since it is surely good for me not to violate moral norms. It might not be bad for my physical or mental health, but it is presumably in some sense bad. It would be better for me to do what’s good. This kind of badness, though, won’t be useful as a way of arguing against abortion, since it presupposes abortion’s wrongness. In that sense, I agree with you.

    • Hello Anonymous,
      Thanks for your very prompt response. I agree with you %100 that “it is surely good for me to violate moral norms.” That is an excellent point and one that I bypassed in my post. I don’t think we really disagree on what’s at stake here, but I will clarify my thinking in light of your astute comments not to be argumentative or to disagree with you, but because I think they merit a response/clarification.

      Generally, in the Catholic tradition (from which I come) and some other Christian traditions, it is generally thought that something is not just wrong “because God said so” but because God and therefore God’s will is good. This is in contrast to voluntarism http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voluntarism_(theology) which emphasizes God’s will over God’s goodness. So while the Catholic tradition tends to say that we should obey GOd’s will because it is good; the voluntarism strand tends to say, we should obey God’s will simply because it is God’s. In this latter tradition, it doesn’t matter whether what God wants for us is good. In this latter strand, there is really no hope of discerning God’s will apart from GOd’s direct command (which is usually described as being found in scripture.) The Catholic tradition, on the other hand, thinks that because God wills the good, we can know it from observation and reason both inductive and deductive.

      So yes, I agree with you that it is good to do good and bad to do evil, as a Catholic, I tend to think that doing what is good can be proven to be good. When my mom wanted me to eat vegetables as a kid, it was good for me to eat them not just because she would reward me with dessert or because she is my authority and I should obey her, but also because vegetables will contribute to my flourishing in a discernable way.

      Does that make sense?

    • Though, as Katie’s post points out, such claims that abortions cause breast cancer are simply not true. I, for one, would have to object that attempts to persuade based on lies and manipulation of women’s pursuit of well-being are not in any way appropriate. In fact, such tactics remove legitimacy from those who would employ them.

  2. “However, perhaps we should also interpret attempts to prove that abortion is bad for women as evidence of the existence of a sort of discomfort with this aspect of church teaching–as a sort of recognition that church teaching should be about women as well as the unborn, or that there is something amiss when what is good for the unborn is not also good for their mothers.”

    Exceptionally generous of you, Katie. I really appreciate that you are working really hard to find a positive angle on this. I admit that I am not nearly as inclined to see positive intent in these arguments — mostly I see a complete misunderstanding of gender, self, and autonomy (not ot mention a lack of mercy). But maybe that’s why I don’t go to Catholic church these days :)

    On a related note, I would be interested, at some point, to see what the data is on race-related access to contraceptives. But that’s for when I go to public policy school ;)

    Keep up the good work!

  3. This post rocks. As the Phoenix case, the history of the pro-life movement, and any careful reading of official Catholic teaching shows, “pro-life” really is a misnomer. The movement would do well to follow AP guidelines and just go ahead and call itself “anti-abortion.” At least that might prevent the strained claims that abortion harms women or that “abortion is not health care.”

    • it seems also as though there is a difference between being anti abortion and anti the legalization of abortion just as there are some pro choicers who think abortion is usually or always wrong but should be legal and those who think it is a more positive good.

  4. If this really was about women’s health, you would think the church would promote contraception … BC pills cut a woman’s chance of getting some cancers. But it’s not.

    • Hi Crystal,
      I don’t know the specifics off the top of my head, but, as far as I know, when it comes to women’s health, birth control pills are pretty much a wash. Perhaps some kind and well-informed reader can help me out with this.

      Also, according to the magisterium, women are allowed to take birth control pills to treat certain hormonal problems, even if the pills have a contraceptive effect because this effect is not intended.

      So, while birth control pills do treat and lessen some conditions and while this is considered morally acceptable, even by very conservative bishops and theologians, I do not think it is true that, in general and universally, birth control pills improve women’s health, since I think they also can have some unwanted side effects.

      • Birth control pills receive much the same treatment from some conservative Catholic groups as does abortion; there’s a lot of false literature out there trumpeting their health risks, but most (not all) of these claims have been discredited by medical professionals. It is true, though, that some pills do put you at higher risk for some health problems.

        But on the other hand, couldn’t we say that, “world-wide-speaking,” birth control pills would improve women’s health greatly? I.e., by keeping them out of poverty and by allowing them to avoid dangerous childbirth, which is still a reality in so much of the world?

      • Sonja, I think you are right in saying that “world-wide-speaking” birth control pills would improve women’s health….def.

        I guess I was speaking more narrowly of the medical side-effects (both positive and negative) of birth control. Most definitely it is true that when women have control over when and how often they get pregnant, their overall well-being improves dramatically.

        And yes, certainly there is a lot of misinformation out there…I wasn’t suggesting that the negative side-effects of birth control are major; obviously, given their popularity, for many women, whatever negative side effects produced by birth control are worth it.

  5. And in the developed world, too. I mean, what is that mother from the Phoenix case going to do now? I’m guessing she was offered neither sterilization nor contraceptives by the hospital, in keeping with Catholic teaching. Which leaves her the options of becoming celibate or playing a sick form of Russian roulette each time she and her husband have sex.

  6. I’ve used birth control pills for many years with no problems but it’s true they do have possible negative side effects, including risk of stroke and other cardio-vascular problems.

    There are benefits, though … “Studies have consistently shown that using OCs reduces the risk of ovarian cancer. In a 1992 analysis of 20 studies of OC use and ovarian cancer, researchers from Harvard Medical School found that the risk of ovarian cancer decreased with increasing duration of OC use. Results showed a 10 to 12 percent decrease in risk after 1 year of use, and approximately a 50 percent decrease after 5 years of use (5) … The use of OCs has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of endometrial cancer. This protective effect increases with the length of time OCs are used, and continues for many years after a woman stops using OCs (11).” – National Cancer Institute

    Not that I’m suggesting anyone should take them for that reason, of course. It’s just that they seem like a fairly safe, effective, and convenient form of birth control, yet they have a pretty bad rep.

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