The Politics of Health Risk Warnings:
Social Movements and Controversy over the Link
between Abortion and Breast Cancer
This chapter examines controversy in the United States over antiabortion advocates' efforts to link abortion with another highly visible, politicized, and emotionally laden women's health issue: breast cancer. Drawing on scholarship that emphasizes the politics of risk perception, assessment, and communication, I analyze both how antiabortion activists have supported their claims and how women's health and abortion rights advocates have responded to antiabortion campaigns that publicize the putative “fact” that abortion increases a woman's risk of subsequently contracting breast cancer. Whether abortion and breast cancer are linked in this way has been labeled by some medical professionals as “one of the most controversial and important questions in women's health today” (Bartholomew and Grimes 1998:708) and identified by others as “scientifically complex and politically charged” (Gammon, Bertin, and Terry 1996).1 Health professionals and advocates who represent both sides of the abortion debate have analyzed evidence of the risk of breast cancer associated with abortion on both scientific and political terms. Controversy over antiabortion advocates' campaign to publicize the “scientific fact” that abortion increases a
I would like to thank Jo Murphy-Lawless, Jessica Jerome, and Francesca Bray for their
feedback on an early version of this chapter, which was presented at the 2000 American
Anthropological Association meetings. Talia Walsmith and Alena Donovan provided
valuable, detailed research assistance, and the Institute for Social, Economic, and Behav-
ioral Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara, provided funding support.
The chapter has benefited enormously due to close readings of its several iterations by
Doug English and Barbara Herr Harthorn. I owe an abundance of thanks to Barbara,
whose vision and energy have sustained our collaborative work on this volume from its
inception as a conference panel to its completion as a book manuscript.