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Critics say White House skews science
Web site changes involving abortion, condoms questioned

Friday, December 27, 2002
Adam Clymer
New York Times

Washington -- The National Cancer Institute, which used to say on its Web site that the best studies showed "no association between abortion and breast cancer," now says the evidence is inconclusive.

A Web page of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used to say that studies showed that education about condom use did not lead to earlier or increased sexual activity. That statement, which contradicts the view of "abstinence only" advocates, is omitted from a revised version of the page.

Critics say those changes -- far below the political radar screen -- illustrate how the Bush administration can satisfy conservative constituents with relatively little exposure to the kind of attack that a legislative proposal or a White House statement would invite.

Bill Pierce, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, scoffed at the idea that there was anything political about the changes, saying that they reflect only scientific judgments and that department headquarters had nothing to do with them.

"We simply looked at them, and they put them up," Pierce said of the agencies involved.

Fourteen House Democrats, including Rep. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles, the senior minority member of the House Government Reform Committee, have written to Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, charging that the new versions "distort and suppress scientific information for ideological purposes."

Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the new statement on abortion and breast cancer "simply doesn't track the best available science."

"Scientific and medical misinformation jeopardizes peoples' lives," Feldt said, adding that any suggestion of a connection between abortion and breast cancer is "bogus" and preys on "millions of women's legitimate concerns about breast cancer."

The earlier statement, which the National Cancer Institute removed from the Web in June after anti-abortion lawmakers objected to it, noted that many studies have reached varying conclusions about a relation between abortion and breast cancer, but said "recent large studies" showed no connection.

In particular, it cited a study of 1.5 million Danish women that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1997. That study, the cancer institute said, found that "induced abortions have no overall effect on the risk of breast cancer."

Dorie Hightower, a press officer at the National Cancer Institute, attributed the revision to the institute's periodic review of fact sheets "for accuracy and scientific relevance." Asked whether the institute now thinks the Danish study failed on either count, Hightower said no.

As for the CDC's fact sheet on condoms, the old version focused on the advantages of using them, while the new version puts more emphasis on the risk that such use may not prevent sexually transmitted diseases, and on the advantages of abstinence.

In an interview, Dr. David Fleming, the CDC's deputy director for science, defended the new version.

"We try as hard as possible," Fleming said, "to state objectively what is known about condom efficacy without nuancing language beyond what is supported by the science."

He said the document reflects consensus of the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health, and that none of its conclusions were influenced by those agencies' parent, the Department of Health and Human Services.

James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a public health organization dealing with adolescent sexual health, said the new fact sheet appears to be neutral on the use of condoms, and asked, "Would the Geologic Survey take a neutral stand on whether the Earth is round or flat?"

The House Democrats' letter to Thompson said that by alteration and deletion, the CDC "is now censoring the scientific information about condoms it makes available to the public" in order to suit abstinence-only advocates. And it said the breast cancer document amounts to nothing more than "the political creation of scientific uncertainty."

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