Abort! Abort! Abetz, Abortions, Breast Cancer and Science Denialism

Two nights ago (7 August 2014), Senator Eric Abetz, leader of the Australian Government in the Senate, appeared on television to defend his involvement in the World Congress of Families conference to be held in Melbourne soon.

He was asked a simple question: whether he believes the view promoted by one of the speakers at the conference that there is a link between abortions and breast cancer. The footage can be viewed here.

He starts his response by referring to studies dating back from the 1950s that assert that there is a link between the two. When challenged about the scientific invalidity of those findings, he defends his previous statement on grounds that the host making the assertion (Mia Freedman) is not qualified to argue about the science.

When it is put to Mr Abetz that it is not Ms Freedman’s opinion, but that of the Australian Medical Association, he points to other associations with a differing view and retreats to the “I’m not an expert” trench, a wholly inappropriate strategy for someone with political power and the ability to be fully informed about such an issue before the interview.

The following morning Mr Abetz released a statement denying media reports that he believes that there is a link. He then says that although he doesn’t endorse all views held by all speakers at the conference and the speaker at the conference promoting the link (Dr Lanfranchi) is a qualified surgeon with the right to express an opinion.

Dr Lanfranchi is an advocate of the “The Pill Kills” movement, one of the pro-life groups desperate to find a scientific basis on which they can promote their beliefs. These groups cherry-pick reports that agree with or bolster their beliefs and promote those reports without any care about their reliability. Personal tastes on sexuality and equality by themselves are going to be difficult to impose on the rest of the community. But if the impartial authority of the scientific process can be bent to promote those tastes, a more rational argument can be made as to why individuals and governments should share them.

The truth is not sought. What is sought is the authority of an article published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, devoid of any of the criticisms that have been levelled at it or the conclusions reached by more reliable studies. Scientists and doctors are not beyond reproach for falling victim to their own bias. Caution must be used when evaluating the opinion of experts touting a scientific basis for their moral world views, even if it is published in a journal.

Reliable cohort studies that avoid the biases either cultivated or unwittingly included in self-reporting studies (such as this one) conclude that there is no link between abortions and breast cancer.

There is significant harm caused by championing authorities to promote a debunked view. The harm fall on those who find themselves in the position where an abortion is being considered and information is being sought on the risks of the procedure.

But the greatest harm must be to the credibility of Senator Abetz and his fellow legislators who continuously fail to act on facts supported by impartial scientific enquiry and instead deferring to opinion promoted by interest groups.

I don’t believe these politicians are credulous fools. Their stupidity on scientific subjects is a smokescreen to their true beliefs, beliefs that they will defend in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence.

I presume Mr Abetz has advisors able to inform him of the science on this issue. I presume that he knew what he was appearing on The Project to discuss this issue. I presume that a person representing the interests of all those in his electorate will seek the truth and act on it even where it conflicts with his own personal tastes.

Instead his first response to the question about his view on a discredited opinion was to begin reciting the authority on which the opinion is based.

Mr Abetz, you do not need to be a scientist to have an understanding of what conclusions have been reached by reliable scientific enquiry. You know that the opinion you are defending has been discredited by reliable scientific enquiry. You claim that you do not endorse the discredited opinion, but are yet to specifically state that you disagree with it. And to attempt to end the criticism levelled at you by relying on freedom of Dr Lanfranchi to express her opinion shows just how clumsy your attempts to withhold your true beliefs from the public really are.

Mr Abetz must clarify his position on whether he agrees with the assertion that there is a link between abortions and breast cancer as his statement does not clarify it. The same issue should be put all politicians attending the World Congress of Families:

  • Robert Clark – Victorian Attorney-General
  • Kevin Andrews – Federal Social Services Minister
  • Cory Bernardi – Federal Senator
  • Bernie Finn – Victorian Member of the Legislative Assembly

Given the propensity of politicians such as Mr Abetz to cling to their opinion when there is a differing fact, all politicians should be required, even by their own ethics, to disclose the realities with which they disagree.




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