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Aug 8, 2014

Rundle: Abetz and the sleazy switch from moral campaign to scientific irrationalism

Eric Abetz says there is a demonstrated link between abortion and breast cancer (he now says he didn't, despite it airing on national television). Won't anyone stand up for science anymore?


Good god, government watching these days is turning into an Augean stables-type gig. No sooner have we had the unveiling of Team Australia, the call to suspend debate and dissent, the co-option of the dead, the 40 jobs a month farrago, than we now have Senator Eric Abetz reviving that most discredited of charges: the spurious, discredited and mendacious suggestion of a link between abortion and breast cancer.

Revived by Abetz on The Project last night, the abortion-breast cancer hypothesis — the suggestion that having an abortion results in a higher risk for breast cancer — has a long history in Australia. One of its decade-long champions has been Babette Francis, chair of the Endeavour Forum, one of the myriad of quasi-independent front groups set up around Bob Santamaria and the National Civic Council in the 1970s, and hosts of the World Congress on Families conference, where this stuff will be aired.

The Australian anti-abortion movement latched onto the abortion-breast cancer hypothesis more strongly than elsewhere for one simple reason — abortion, once it began to be de facto decriminalised in Australia, steadily acquired substantial public support. In the United States, it’s at the centre of the culture wars; in Australia, by the ’90s, it was decisively shoved to one side. The anti-abortion lobby was then faced with a choice — they could stick to their guns and maintain their religious-ethical objects without hope of victory, or engage in subterfuge and propaganda. Guess which?

The abortion-breast cancer hypothesis had emerged in the late 1950s in Japan, but began to be examined more systematically in the 1980s, based on rat studies. The proposed mechanism was that pregnancy and raised oestrogen levels stimulate the growth of breast cells, which remain immature when the pregnancy is terminated, thus exposing them to higher risk of cell mutation. While full-term pregnancy does associate with a lower risk of breast cancer, there is no higher risk of breast cancer from abortion, relative to non-pregnancy.

Much of the work done to put the hypothesis front and centre was led by a single endocrinologist, anti-abortion campaigner Joel Brind, who banged the drum for it through the 1980s and into the ’90s. Brind published a meta-analysis of research in 1996 and used it to claim a significant correlation. Though the research was found to be widely flawed, it became the core of a new push for an abortion-breast cancer link.

Following the non-crediting of his 1996 research, Brind set up the Breast Cancer Prevention Institute with Dr Angela Lanfranchi, who’s speaking at the Melbourne conference.

The continued agitation for a link — ultimately taken up by the Dubya administration — led to a 2003 US National Cancer Institute conference on the matter, in which 99 of 100 experts agreed that no link was demonstrated. The dissenter was … Joel Brind. That does not mean no more research should be done on this, or any, line, but the absence of evidence for any correlation means that, as a principle of public medical practice, the debate is over unless new evidence should emerge. Brind et al’s evidence/interpretation has been demolished as anything that could give reasonable ground for an alternative hypothesis or model of practice.

Eric Abetz is now trying to wiggle out of the remarks he made on The Project — using the Tony Abbott model of denying blind what you’re caught on tape saying, and hoping that News Corp will muddy the waters for you. It worked in the election, stopped working soon after that, and doesn’t have a hope in hell with The Project’s audience.

The truth is that Abetz is using the irrationalist, anti-science model of reasoning that the Right has adopted for climate change denial — and which is spreading to their whole approach to science. Science of the type that involves mass epidemiological studies generates many easily falsifiable hypotheses and relatively fewer useful but as-yet unfalsified ones (which is the closest physical science gets to verification). So stray or fleeting correlations can always be found, but if they do not show systemic or repeatable effects, they offer literally nothing by way of describing a real-world process.

The scepticism that right-wing irrationalists use (one correlation equals an unproven hypothesis) is pre-scientific, in that it takes the sceptical 18th-century philosophy of David Hume and others — who argued that there can be no proven correlation between anything — which had to be transcended in order for scientific method to have grounding. Abetz and others latch onto scepticism when it suits, and then go to the doctor and shape their whole health regime around the exact opposite practice — consolidated science, based on overwhelming and repeated evidence.

Whether someone like Abetz knows he is even doing this is doubtful. One of the appeals of the breast cancer-abortion hypothesis to religious fundamentalists is that it suggests an embedded punishment for those who seek an abortion — or for those who have abortions without later having children. The sleazy switch from a moral campaign against abortion to a pseudo-scientific one is thus rationalised at a deeper level. There is neither desire nor even ability to question one’s own deep and disabling bias — instead, as for a rat in a political Skinner box, a spurious phenomenon that suggests the world works exactly as you picture it and provides a pleasure burst, and on you go.

Let people run whatever crackpot congress they like. But once again one asks — are there no members of the “Liberal” Party, always ready to talk about the “religion of the Greens” — who will talk back to an anti-scientific irrationalism that is now returning to its natural home on the Right?


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48 thoughts on “Rundle: Abetz and the sleazy switch from moral campaign to scientific irrationalism

  1. klewso

    I’ve heard that believing what Limited News tells you leads to levophobia?

  2. Electric Lardyland

    Yes, and in Bravenewtonyworld, there is no correlation between what I said and what I said. And anybody who says that there is, is not a member of Team Australia.

  3. Shaun Cunniffe

    I agree, Abetz can be a bit of a clown, however, in this case he is being mis-reported.

    I note that you don’t give the details of the conversation in which you alledge he said he believes the link between abortion and breast cancer. According to the ABC it went …

    Freedman: “What about the fact that one of the speakers at this conference promotes the factually incorrect statement that abortion leads to breast cancer. Do you believe that?”

    Abetz: “I think the studies, and I think they date back from the 1950s, assert that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer.”

    Freedman: “It is conclusively and scientifically incorrect in the same way that linking immunisations and autism are incorrect. So when this scientific non-information is being put out there, how can you be comfortable being part of something that promotes this non-science?”

    Abetz: “Well I don’t know what your scientific expertise is to be able to run that commentary, I must confess I don’t have that … ”
    Freedman: “It’s not me. It’s the Australian Medical Association.”

    Abetz: “Well there are other organisations that have differing views as some of these speakers are clinical professors … ”

    He is simply saying that some people who can be influential do believe it. He did not say he believed it. He didn’t deny it; he didn’t say it though.

    I agree with the AMA guy on Triple-J this morning who pointed out that the research is from the 1950’s and should be treated as such, because we have learnt a lot since then on this subject.

    Please don’t “Murdoch” Crikey by ranting on about what you think someone should or should not say or do, you’re a news service, not a religion.

  4. Tamas Calderwood

    “So stray or fleeting correlations can always be found, but if they do not show systemic or repeatable effects, they offer literally nothing by way of describing a real-world process.”

    Say… like our CO2 emissions and global warming? Record emissions and no sign of any systematic or repeatable effect on the world’s temperature for the past 15 years.

    Is it irrationalist and anti-science to point out that the temperature data simply don’t fit with the global warming hypothesis?

  5. JohnB

    “Whether someone like Abetz knows he is even doing this is doubtful.”

    Is anything that Eric Abetz “knows” not doubtful?

    Name one example. This miserable excuse of a Federal Minister has set a new low, far below the achievements of those who he criticises.

    The Libs will need to replace more than a few of their current crew if they wish to retain office in a couple of years’ time. Since they seem to have difficulty managing their own preselections, here are a few for starters.

    Eric Abetz
    Tony Abbott, for obvious reasons,
    Warren Truss,
    Christopher Pyne,
    Julie Bishop, who the Chinese refer to as “the fool”,
    Bronwyn Bishop, who deserves Julie’s nickname,
    Phil Ruddock,
    Greg Hunt, the environmental vandal,
    Scott Morrisson, the Minister for Cruelty to Refugees,
    Mathias Cormann,
    Andrew Robb,
    Ian McFarlane,
    Kevin Andrews, another outright religious nutter.

    Who’d want any one of this baker’s dozen as a neighbour, let alone as their parliamentary representative?

  6. Sir Leigh Curmudgeon

    Good lord Guy, we all know that old Betsy is a ninny but we of the old school have to win our arguments somehow. The ladies should just do as they are told as they did in the good old days of yore.

  7. Steven Grant Haby


    You left out Dopey Dutton as well.


  8. michael dwyer

    For some strange reason the Brind research does not appear to cover women with miscarriages, who seriously outnumber those with induced abortions. Is breast cancer rare amongst virgins?

  9. David Camfield

    It takes 10 years to get a PhD, and another 10 years to establish a respected scientific career for a reason.

    This government is a massive insult to every scientist in Australia.

  10. Guy Rundle

    Tamas! You’re back!

    The Co2/temperature isn’t fleeting or stray. It’s the exact opposite of such. The two graphs match each so tightly that the only way to falsify AGW is to find a better explanation for this correlation and causality. It’s the minor variation in warming that you guys like to cite, that is the stray data, amplified by applying a limited time frame

    As well you know.

  11. paddy

    That’s the finest public flogging of Erica with a large wet fish I’ve read so far Guy.

  12. Guy Rundle

    Shaun C

    what if the subject had been homeopathy and cancer?

    EA: well there’s studies from the 1950s that suggest efficacy

    Interviewer: those have been disproved

    EA: according to who?

    Interviewer: The AMA

    EA: well there are other authorities…

    There are no reputable authorities that support the bc-abortion hypothesis. That’s the reason why a federal minister shouldnt be spruiking it on TV

  13. zut alors

    ‘…began to be examined more systematically in the 1980s, based on rat studies.’

    Following their studies it appears the rats purported an unscientific theory having jumped to a shonky conclusion. The moral: beware of rats, especially in science & politics.

  14. SusieQ

    Shaun Cunnife, although your point is reasonable, why ever did Erica bring it up in the first place? I guess the answer to that depends on how cynical you are 1. he really does think that and wants to start a discussion on rolling the abortion laws back 2. it is as you say in your post.

  15. Jaybuoy

    its not Roe v Wade its Tamas v science..

  16. Shaun Cunniffe

    By “it is as you say in your post” do you mean that the “Abetz is a clown”?
    I reckon it’s your option 1, no question.

    I was just a bit short on the reporting of this case jumping to “he said” when he didn’t. I need to believe the “he/she saids” in news reporting, else I sound like a politician when I quote inaccuracies

  17. Mendoza

    The best example of Abetz science I have seen so far was on Lateline, where he claimed his anecdotal musings were more valid than university studies. When you disassociate yourself from reality, anything goes!

  18. Jan Dobson

    It’s easy to dismiss Sen Abetz not clearing disputing the Breast Cancer / Abortion claim as just the stupidity of an out of touch politician but it is much more insidious. Dr. Angela Lanfranchi also promotes http://thepillkills.org/ whose headline reads The Pill Kills Women and Babies.

    As a woman with a family history of strokes, I’ve kept up with the studies on the Pill / Stroke link. This is one, and by far the least bizarre, claim made by Dr Lanfranchi. On this organisations website where her qualifications are highlighted, she sounds experienced and knowledgeable. However, I would be unsurprised if her claims didn’t stand up under qualified scrutiny.

    But therein lies the rub. We know that these scare campaigns affect the target audience. Additional stress, changes in behaviour, guilt: all due to agenda driven instead of science driven reporting. Having a member of government, or in this case four parliamentarians, endorse the organisation featuring this speaker does not help.

    There are many groups who willing to support the traditional nuclear family. Sen Abetz and company, if they must interfere in the private lives of others, should go find them.

  19. The Old Bill

    Unlike CO2 global / warming and abortion / breast cancer there is an undoubted statistically significant correlation between breast cancer and school attendance in Australian females. Wait till Abetz and Pyne think about that one.

  20. Bill Cushing

    ‘Team Australia’ is a Labor invention — eg used by Rudd.

    No doubt, though, that Abetz is a dill. Like Andrews and several other front-benchers.

    Shortage of talent in Parliament(both sides & X-bench), and Public Service, is getting really serious.

  21. Shirty

    Ah Shaun, how convenient. Merely by mentioning the study in this context and refusing to acknowledge it has been discredited, he is implying it is legit.

    He raises the study as a legitimate source of scientific analysis; he refuses to concede that it’s been fundamentally discredited; he questions the credentials of the person challenging him then he implies the study is scientifically sound on the basis that “other organisations have differing and some of them are clinical professors”.[attempting to make an argument from authority rather than relying on the veracity of the study itself].

    He may not have said “I agree with the study” but he didn’t have to, his conduct was an obvious enough attempt to imply it was credible. Eric doth protest too much.

  22. Shaun Cunniffe


    Fair enough. I agree, Abetz was lame in his response. Your analysis of it is brilliant. Him just answering “yes” would have been easier. That’s what he meant. Then we could have been discussing the credibility of the minds in office rather than me questioning Crikey.


  23. Tamas Calderwood

    Thanks for responding Guy!

    You obviously haven’t studied any CO2 or temperature graphs though.

    Temperature has risen by just 0.8C since 1860. This came in three roughly equal spurts (1860-1880, 1910-1940, 1975-1998) and temperatures stopped rising in 1998.

    CO2 emissions have risen exponentially since the 1950s.

    It’s tough arguing for the “settled science” of global warming when the globe simply isn’t warming!

  24. The Old Bill

    Oh dear Tamas, we were taught about Global Warming at uni in the seventies. A friend of mine has been measuring actual physical sea level rise in the Pacific since the eighties. ( It is.)
    Check the Pastafarian website, there is also an indisputed tie up between global warming and pirate numbers declining. A fact that makes as much sense as the ones you quote.

    Oh, and try Google Scholar next time you research. I find it much easier to find facts that way.

  25. Tamas Calderwood

    Thanks for the advice Old Bill.

    Any comment on why global warming stopped 15 years ago?

  26. Queen of Nambour

    Perhaps Senator Abetz has passed the new “Diploma of Studying Women” being handed out by the well known feminist and expert on women’s affairs in the downstairs department none other than our very own Prime Minister. I understand the curriculum was slightly altered to remove the offensive pinkist bits like feminism, social disadvantage, oppression and domestic violence and they inserted ironing, getting dinner on the table on time, I know your ovaries better than you do and Joe, Tony and Eric’s new favourite – Barefoot and pregnant – Lifting for Team Australia.

  27. mikehilliard

    I’m constantly amazed that some are prepared to give this mob the benefit of the doubt. The anti abortionist stance of Abbott and his pals like Abetz is legendary. Guy calls it for what it is – anti-scientific irrationalism.

  28. klewso

    Why raise such an obscure-by-now, obsolete, discredited assertion in the first place?

  29. Brian Williams

    Not since those crazy lazy days of 2011 when the Labor Party was hell bent on self destruction have we seen a week where so many inept politicians have let their sea of true (in)abilities and personal biases wash up on the shore like a septic tsunami, and give us the pleasure of watching them drown in them.

    I would have been happy with the week if it had only included Brandis being forced to eat his sh*t sandwich in the 18C announcement (actually he looked more like he’d just been forced to spend the night with Gina Rheinhart), but to have added to that his bipolaresque performance on Sky News, and then Ericas effort on The Project makes this week, hands down, the funniest one of the last few years for those of us who’ve been waiting for kharma to descend on this nest of dung beetles.

    Ok, ok, enough with the scatological references, but seriously, I actually feel sorry for the small ‘L’ Liberals at the moment. By and large, Abbott has left them out in the cold while appointing the sorry bunch of misfits in JohnB’s list to most of the senior positions, but those outside that stellar group, especially the first-timers in the marginals, will know that the game is now almost certainly up as far as ‘the mob’ is concerned, and are probably already be updating their CVs in anticipation of joining the ranks of the unemployed in late 2016.

  30. David Hand

    What a fool.
    The Abetz interview gives that uncomfortable sense that the anti-abortion lobby that lurks at the fundamentalist and Catholic Christian end of the Liberal and National parties still has a bit of life in it.

    It’s one reason I joined the Liberal Party – to exert my feather-weight influence against them.

  31. The Old Bill

    I suppose I’ll have to comment Tamas, since I wrote a reply in the first place. I am no expert and left Uni twice without a degree, (third time lucky,) but the side effects to just 0.8C rise are bad enough for me to worry. And yes, all competent people working in this field show climate change rising in steps over time. There are very valid reasons to listen to them if you read past the intro paragraph and try to understand why the warming occurs as it does and why CO2 emissions are the main concern.

  32. Kevin Herbert

    Even though I have no time at all for Abetz, I agree with Shaun Cunniffe’s view.

    Given his past performances, I reckon we won’t have to wait for long for a monumental slip up.

  33. AR

    Apart from copying Abbott’s outright denial of recordings, he could have tried His Master’s best argument of all – “It just IS!”. Brooks no debate nor doubt.

  34. Malcolm Street

    Shaun – Abetz was asked whether he disbelieved the claimed link. He could have simply said “yes”.

    Instead he bullsh!tted and threw out several red herrings. I think that’s enough evidence that he believes it.

  35. fractious

    Brian Williams 4:55pm:
    “I would have been happy with the week if it had only included Brandis being forced to eat his sh*t sandwich in the 18C announcement … but to have added to that his bipolaresque performance on Sky News, and then Ericas effort on The Project makes this week, hands down, the funniest one of the last few years”

    Combine those balls-ups with the farce that was the joint Bunsen Honeydew/ Head Prefect announcements on what was (or wasn’t) “metadata” (or not), and the whole show reminded me of nothing so much as the behaviour of a bunch of 3rd form schoolboys when teacher steps outside for a few minutes. No sooner is teacher out the door than the whole classroom descends into a maelstrom of mooning, catapult-launching, chucking lumps of potassium into beakers of water and daubing the walls with adolescent graffiti. Head Prefect has virtually no control over anyone from the 3rd form upwards, and is anyway busy having his photo taken for the school magazine (again). Somehow I can’t see too many glowing half-term reports.

  36. Bill Williams


    You’re not seriously suggesting that Guy Rundle writes biased articles are you??

    Oh yes I forgot it’s only a biased article if it disagrees with the journalist dogma. Hmmm.

  37. Ken Lambert

    Well Guy knows nothing about Global Warming and Tamas and I do……

    However, Abetz is a dill on the breast cancer/abortion link, idiotic on making 40 job applications a month (and in person if you can!): Georgie Brandis is a pompous ass with very limited political skill and both Abbott and Brandis need to do some homework before tackling the incredible complexities of Metadata.

    Incredible complexity: A phone call is not the same as a visit to a website Georgie and Tony!!

    Even Magnificent Malcolm was footling about a bit with Metadata this morning.

    Don’t forget that the member for Goldman Sachs showed magnificently flawed judgement in his backing of the ETS as opposition leader in the wake of the Copenhagen three ring circus and the destruction of public confidence in the Climategate players……don’t put too much faith in Malcolm not to blow it again…magnificently of course.

    Remember the famous phrases which define an event, a career or a cause?

    “Read my lips”…..”L A W..law”…..”I am not a crook”….”Mr Gorbachov – tear down this wall”….”Life wasn’t meant to be easy”….”Mission accomplished”…..”Ich bin ein Berliner”….

    “Hide the decline”.

  38. Tom Jones

    Where are the decent people in the coalition?

    Delusional rantings are so dreary – take note Tamas.

  39. stephen dolan

    Abetz believes the link because his type believe in divine retribution. This is the core of the extreme right’s heinous message on abortion.
    Whilst the slapdown in the past week was most enjoyable, the lesson he and others learned was not to be outed so publicly. they will continue this dialogue were they have support and protection.

  40. pinkocommierat

    I’m convinced this bloke has had a sub-orbital lobotomy and is a living showcase of 1950s medicine.

  41. AR

    It is missing the point to winder whether Erica is so thick as to believe this stuff -it is about fear & loathing on the (continuing) campaign trail.
    Scare & tongue bathe the deluded and they’ll look to you for protection from reality.

  42. klewso

    Even after Utegate he was still viewed as having gravitas and credibility by some – including a deferential media, happy to tear strips off the Left at the same time.

  43. pritu

    Johnb @ 7

    Is El Cigaro Joseph de Hockey exempt from your list?

  44. Rubio Diego

    If Abetz isn’t delusional, then he must be a liar and if he’s not a liar, then he must be delusional. Can there be any other explanation?

  45. JohnB

    @ Pritu:

    I considered giving him a guernsey, but held back only because of irrational hope that his illness of the past half year will pass, he will remember how to smile, and he will bloody well wake up to himself before he does serious damage.

  46. AR

    RubioD @44 has picked the Socratic conundrum, Xenon said, “All Kretans are liars” but Xenon is Kretan.
    In the case of Erica though, I’d say both with a side helping of hypocrisy garnished with spite.

  47. MJPC

    Brian W (29)interesting insight on the week. Reference marginals; David Coleman, member for Banks NSW, won his seat from Daryl Melham (Labour) who had held the seat for many years. By all accounts Coleman won it from a protest vote of constituents voting informal rather than voting for Labour (as well as a moving of the boundaries).
    The local paper (very popular with proletariat)has been scathing of Abbott policies and budget. Coleman was going to publish a newsletter from April 2014 for the voters(obviously to push the Libs agenda)but evidently is stillborn, also very few mentions of him in the local paper. I think he has been spending his time on his CV as he will be a dead duck come 2016 unless the LNP can get their act together.
    Be very interesting to see what happens in the seat in 2015 state election.

  48. PDGFD1

    A very belated… EXCELLENT WORK Mr. R!
    Could not have said it better myself (believe me, I couldn’t).

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