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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey