Commentary

How NOW on Implants?

By Steven J. Milloy
This article was published in the Washington Times, July 30, 2003.

The National Organization for Women portrays itself as being in favor of women making their own informed choices for their bodies. So it’s curious that NOW opposes women choosing to have silicone breast implants (SBIs).

NOW released a report last week intended to scare women away from implants as manufacturers apply to the Food and Drug Administration for approval of SBIs. NOW essentially claims that not enough data exist about the safety of SBIs.

That claim ignores the conclusions of a 1999 report by a group of multidisciplinary scientific and medical experts assembled by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine.

The IOM panel reviewed the existing scientific literature on SBIs — well more than 1,000 published studies — and concluded the weight of evidence does not support an association between SBIs and autoimmune disease, dysfunction of the immune system, connective tissue/rheumatic disease, cancer, neurological disease or adverse effects on breastfeeding infants, though local complications may occur in some women.

One reason there have been so many studies on SBIs is that they have been around since the 1970s.

It’s awfully silly of NOW to claim that 30 years of real-world data captured in more than 1,000 studies is an insufficient basis to draw conclusions about SBI safety. But what can an activist group do when the science just won’t cooperate?

NOW’s decade-old crusade against SBIs was renewed in May when it held a “Symposium on the Safety and Effectiveness of Silicone Gel-Filled Breast Implants.” The symposium apparently was timed to coincide with the release of a report to Congress from the National Institutes of Health on SBI safety.

I suspect NOW hoped the NIH report would raise concerns about the safety of SBIs and scheduled the symposium in hopes of exploiting any bad news.

The symposium featured prominent anti-implant activist Diana Zuckerman and Lori Brown, an anti-implant activist who works at the FDA.

Ms. Brown’s presence alongside several other federal employees featured at the symposium seemed intended to give the impression the federal government endorsed NOW’s views.

It was all for naught, however.

The NIH report, which incorporated recent long-term (10 year) assessments of women with implants, reconfirmed the IOM’s conclusions on connective tissue disease and even found a slight decrease in breast cancer incidence. Compared with other plastic surgery patients, women with SBIs reportedly had lower rates for nearly every other cancer and, consistent with previous findings concerning people who undergo elective surgery, had lower mortality rates than their peers.

So why is NOW — the self-styled champion of women rather than the government making their own choices — now working to have the government deny women that very right?

Could the explanation be NOW’s narrow view of what is right for women and their bodies? Could the answer lie in an alliance between NOW and other activist groups that are fueled by trial lawyers? Is there a more direct relationship with trial lawyers?

NOW, after all, was asked by personal injury lawyers in the mid-1990s to get involved in the SBI litigation.

Questions abound as NOW partnered at the symposium with the personal injury lawyer-friendly Public Citizen and the printed materials available at NOW’s press conference last week included a brochure from the Command Trust Network, the alpha group of anti-breast implant activists and historic recruiting tool for breast implant plaintiffs.

Unfortunately, the controversy over SBIs is unlikely to subside. Women should expect continued fear mongering by personal injury lawyer-inspired activists.

It has been four years since the IOM report, an unbiased consensus report from qualified experts. An update of that report, broader and more comprehensive than the recent NIH report, would inform the public of recent SBI-related research. More than 250 scientific studies and articles on SBIs have been published since 1999.

Such an update would also assist the FDA in the SBI approval process, which is growing more political by the day.

NOW is a good reason — as well as a good time — to get the IOM update process rolling.

Steven Milloy is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and the author of “Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams” (Cato Institute, 2001).