Risk of breast cancer among young women: relationship to induced abortion

J Natl Cancer Inst. 1994 Nov 2;86(21):1584-92. doi: 10.1093/jnci/86.21.1584.


Background: Certain events of reproductive life, especially completed pregnancies, have been found to influence a woman's risk of breast cancer. Prior studies of the relationship between breast cancer and a history of incomplete pregnancies have provided inconsistent results. Most of these studies included women beyond the early part of their reproductive years at the time induced abortion became legal in the United States.

Purpose: We conducted a case-control study of breast cancer in young women born recently enough so that some or most of their reproductive years were after the legalization of induced abortion to determine if certain aspects of a woman's experience with abortion might be associated with risk of breast cancer.

Methods: Female residents of three counties in western Washington State, who were diagnosed with breast cancer (n = 845) from January 1983 through April 1990, and who were born after 1944, were interviewed in detail about their reproductive histories, including the occurrence of induced abortion. Case patients were obtained through our population-based tumor registry (part of the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program of the National Cancer Institute). Similar information was obtained from 961 control women identified through random digit dialing within these same counties. Logistic regression analysis was used to estimate odds ratios and confidence intervals (CIs).

Results: Among women who had been pregnant at least once, the risk of breast cancer in those who had experienced an induced abortion was 50% higher than among other women (95% CI = 1.2-1.9). While this increased risk did not vary by the number of induced abortions or by the history of a completed pregnancy, it did vary according to the age at which the abortion occurred and the duration of that pregnancy. Highest risks were observed when the abortion was done at ages younger than 18 years--particularly if it took place after 8 weeks' gestation--or at 30 years of age or older. No increased risk of breast cancer was associated with a spontaneous abortion (RR = 0.9; 95% CI = 0.7-1.2).

Conclusion: Our data support the hypothesis that an induced abortion can adversely influence a woman's subsequent risk of breast cancer. However, the results across all epidemiologic studies of this premise are inconsistent--both overall and within specific subgroups. The risk of breast cancer should be reexamined in future studies of women who have had legal abortion available to them throughout the majority of their reproductive years, with particular attention to the potential influence of induced abortion early in life.

PIP: Epidemiologists compared data on 845 white women who were diagnosed with breast cancer between January 1983 and April 1990, were born after 1944, and lived in King, Pierce, or Snohomish counties in Washington State with data on 961 white women with no breast cancer from the same counties. They wanted to determine whether induced abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. Restricting cases to women born after 1944 allowed the researchers to focus only on legal induced abortions. When the researchers limited the analysis only to women who had been pregnant at least once, the risk of developing breast cancer in women who had had at least 1 induced abortion was 50% greater than those who had not had an induced abortion. This risk differed depending on the age at which the women underwent the induced abortion and the duration of that pregnancy. A gestational age (at the time of the first aborted pregnancy) of 9-12 weeks carried the highest risk of breast cancer (RR = 1.9 vs. 1.4 for =or 8 weeks and =or 13 weeks). Further, the breast cancer risk was greatest among women who underwent the induced abortion when they were less than 18 years old (relative risk [RR] = 2.5). It was especially high for women who were less than 18 years old and who had the abortion between 9 and 24 weeks of gestation (RR = 9). It was also high for those who were at least 30 years old at the time of the abortion (RR = 2.1). Spontaneous abortion was not associated with an increased risk (RR = 0.9). Neither the number of induced abortions nor the history of a completed pregnancy were associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. These findings suggest that an induced abortion during the last month of the first trimester increases the risk of breast cancer and that women who were at a very young age at the time of the first induced abortion face an increased risk of breast cancer.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Abortion, Induced / adverse effects*
  • Abortion, Legal / adverse effects
  • Adult
  • Breast Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Pregnancy
  • Registries
  • Risk Factors
  • Washington / epidemiology