Irresponsible Reporting Can Have Real-World Consequences (or, Bullshit, Birth Control is Great)

Women’s health is not something I write much about, since there are many writers who both know more and write more eloquently about it.  However, I felt compelled to write after reading something posted recently by Kathryn Doyle at Reuters and reposted by Fox News.  While I know better than to believe anything that Fox News broadcasts over the airwaves, their online presence has generally been at least a little less blatantly partisan and sensational.  But, there is no doubt that their choice (along with other right-wing sites, including The Blaze) to promote the story had little to do with news and was instead nothing more than propaganda, in step with their recent on-air efforts (on behalf of their GOP sympathizers) to demonize birth control.

The headline itself, “The Pill linked to breast cancer risk for young women,” is certainly attention-grabbing.  As a man, I honestly have not done a great deal of research on the full gamut of risks and side effects of birth control medication.  But, as a man who lost his mother to breast cancer, and as a man who knows women who take such medication for reasons other than their desire not to have children, my attention was certainly grabbed.  But, as a man with the most basic of reading comprehension skills, I have no choice but to call bullshit (though I do sincerely hope that Doyle herself did not write the headline that accompanied her article, since nothing she writes comes close to the conclusion reached in the headline).

The story begins with this bombshell:

A new statistical analysis finds that women under age 50 who were diagnosed with breast cancer were also more likely to have recently been on some versions of the Pill.

On its face, this is indeed shocking news.  However, the findings of this initial paragraph are then called into question by the remainder of the article.  In fact, the shocking revelation is immediately followed by this:

The increased cancer risk still translates to less than a one percent chance of developing breast cancer for most younger women, researchers emphasize, so the results should not outweigh the many benefits of taking oral contraceptives.

These results are not enough to change clinical practice or to discourage any women from taking birth control pills, said lead study author Elizabeth F. Beaber, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington.

So, despite a headline and lead paragraph that seek to scare women from taking birth control pills, Doyle quotes the woman who led the study saying that women should not be scared from taking their birth control pills.

Here are a few further excerpts, with a brief explanation for why they contradict the headline:

  • But birth control pills have evolved over the decades since their introduction and the hormone doses they contain have dropped steadily, so many studies are based on data for formulations that are no longer used, Beaber and her colleagues point out in the journal Cancer Research.

So, the article is making a claim based on data from dosages of medication that are no longer used.  This means no link has been found from current medication doses.

  • Overall, the risk was slightly higher for hormone-sensitive cancers than for other types of tumors, but that result was not statistically significant, meaning it could have been due to chance.

The data backing the alleged “link” was not actually statistically significant, and “could have been due to chance.”  At the very least, this should prompt further research before any claims of a link should be made.

  • Women in the cancer group had more family history of cancer than the comparison group, and may have differed in other ways that the authors could not account for.

Genetics play a large role in the occurrence of cancer (which is why my sisters get annual mammograms despite still being in their thirties), and this is only one of the ways in which the test groups “may have differed” that the authors “could not account for.”  This is less a scientific article than wild speculation.

  • More research is required to determine why and how different birth control options might affect breast cancer risk, Beaber said.

This one is obvious.  The woman leading the study says “more research is required.”  Yet, this does not stop Reuters from running the results with a sensationalistic headline.

  • Less than one percent of women will get breast cancer before age 40, according to the American Cancer Society, and even with a 50 percent relative increase that number would still be under one percent.

So, despite the fearmongering, even if the study did prove a link between birth control and cancer (which it does not), the number of woman diagnosed with breast cancer would still be less than one in a hundred.  How low is that?  Keep reading:

  • For this type of study, a 50 percent increase in risk is actually quite low and can generally be dismissed as bias or random chance, Dr. David A. Grimes told Reuters Health by phone.

So, any increase in breast cancer diagnosis (which, again, shows no link to use of birth control medication) can “be dismissed as bias or random chance.”  So, again, Reuters is admitting in their own story that there is no science to back their conclusion.

  • The new results are not important for women or doctors, Grimes said. Other, better studies have found no increase in breast cancer risk with birth control, which is essential for women’s health, he said.

The doctor Reuters chose to quote for their story literally says the results are “not important for women or doctors,” and that “other, better studies have found no increase in breast cancer risk,” and yet they ran their story with a headline stating that a link was found between birth control and breast cancer.  This is a violation of the ethics of journalism.  They make a claim directly refuted by their own story.  And then, just to rub salt in their own self-inflicted wound, their source says birth control “is essential for women’s health.”

  • The new study did not include interviews with women nor did it assess whether they actually took the pills, only if they had a prescription on file at the time, he pointed out.

This may be the most damning of all.  Here, Reuters reports that the women in the study may not have even taken the medication that would allegedly put them at greater risk for a breast cancer diagnosis.  As long as they are speculating, why was no study conducted over whether the paper on which their prescriptions were written might actually be the cause for this supposed increased risk?

  • The bottom line for women is that birth control pills are very safe, he said.

Exactly.

  • Beaber and her co-authors acknowledge that their results “should be interpreted cautiously” and further studies with a larger group of women are needed to confirm the findings.

Apparently, “cautiously” is not a word that Reuters, its editors, or headline writers are familiar with.

  • Oral contraception helps protects [sic] against pelvic inflammatory disease, lowers the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers and colorectal cancers and helps maintain bone density.

I love this part.  After an entire article debunking their own claim that birth control pills can increase the risk of breast cancer, Reuters admits that these pills can also lower the risk for other types of cancer, along with having other health benefits.  Beautiful.

This is not a story that has anything to do with me, except that it does.  What if a woman read the headline for this story and was compelled to stop taking her medication out of fear of a breast cancer diagnosis?  She would then subject herself to the pain and suffering related to her other legitimate health concerns, as well as the possibility of getting pregnant with a child.  And for what?  To keep herself from a cancer diagnosis that there is no scientific proof she would be at any greater risk of?

It is not surprising that Fox and The Blaze and other right-wing outlets ran with this story, as its headline fits perfectly into the narrative they are trying to craft.  But, the truth is, such propaganda is dangerous.  They want to keep women from taking birth control, period, regardless of the risks that would result.  This is another of their numerous attempts to mislead the public and keep women from making informed decisions about their own heath.  It is deceptive and unethical.  At the very least, Reuters should apologize.  They, unlike Fox or The Blaze, claim to be a non-partisan news source.  Even better, they should retract the story, or at least alter its headline.  But, the best solution would be to admit their mistake, admit that birth control is a vital part of women’s health care and encourage its use for any woman who chooses to take it, and to distance themselves from the right-wing propaganda machine seeking to demonize it.

Update:

I contacted the author of the piece, who confirmed that she did not write the headline for the story.  Her proposed headline was far more accurate and far more appropriate:

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