On last week's episode of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, I discussed the New Hampshire bill that would require doctors to tell women seeking abortions that abortions are known to increase your chance of breast cancer, which is completely incorrect. Here is how the bill is written:
It is scientifically undisputed that full-term pregnancy reduces a woman’s lifetime risk of breast cancer. It is also undisputed that the earlier a woman has a first full-term pregnancy, the lower her risk of breast cancer becomes, because following a full-term pregnancy the breast tissue exposed to estrogen through the menstrual cycle is more mature and cancer resistant.
In fact, for each year that a woman’s first full-term pregnancy is delayed, her risk of breast cancer rises 3.5 percent. The theory that there is a direct link between abortion and breast cancer builds upon this undisputed foundation.
The original bill called for a Class A felony for any doctor who failed to give the woman that information, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The bill passed in the House but was then called back for review, at which point the punishment was changed to remove the felony but still allow doctors to be sued for malpractice or held for disciplinary action (i.e., job loss) by the New Hampshire State Board of Medicine.
On SGU, I explained that prior to the mid-1990s, there had only been a few very small, flawed studies done on this subject, and some of them found that there may be a link between abortion and breast cancer. However, since then there have been several very large studies that have shown rather conclusively that there is no link between abortion and breast cancer.
Therefore, the New Hampshire law would require that doctors give unscientific, medically inaccurate information to patients or else lose their jobs.
On the show, my co-host Dr. Steven Novella (I include his honorific because it's highly relevant here) supported my points, saying that he had also looked into the research and found no link. He agreed that this was irresponsible anti-science legislation that should alarm our audience whether or not they agreed with a woman's right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.
This is one response we got from a listener. I should note that I open each show with several minutes on this date in (science-related) history, and the date of this show happened to be the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster. To my memory it was a short, factual description of events during which I did not lose my breath once. Bolding mine:
First Name: Byron
Last Name: REDACTED
Subject: Show content
Message: Over time I've noticed that your show content has drifted off message, a lot more "political science" rather than hard science. In a recent show Ms. Watson indulges in a breathless Exxon Valdez anniversary remembrance with the obligatory round of predictable, tiresome outrage and sarcasm by all (a more appropriate discussion: recent data on the Prince William Sound ecosystem). She goes on to opine on the contraception issue (this is science?). And where is your skepticism when discussing anthropogenic climate change (the assertion alone seems a breathtaking leap given the scale of the phenomena. …What's more probable – simple solar output or complex man induced carbon based atmospherics. And what of Method? Falsifiability?).
I would like to suggest that you folks return focus to topical pseudo science debunking and let that drive your science discussion/education efforts, i.e. creationism-ID -> Darwin -> evolution. You are not doing our cause any good by wandering into disputatious feminist, leftist, or insular academic intellections.
Unfortunately, I don't have time for payloads, right or left. Good luck with the show, I'll probably stick with 5X5 for awhile.
You see, I always thought that “pseudoscience” referred to misinformation masquerading as science, which is exactly what the New Hampshire bill is. Let’s imagine that it was a bill that required doctors to tell men that scientists have proven that their dicks will fall off if they eat green Jello. Would that be appropriate for our anti-pseudoscience podcast?
I can only assume that Byron doesn’t know the meaning of “topical,” “pseudoscience,” or “debunking,” or for that matter “science,” “discussion,” or “education,” since our piece on the abortion/breast cancer bill was the very definition of a topical discussion debunking pseudoscience by presenting the real science for the public’s education.
And please don’t dismiss Byron as a one-off moron – there are plenty like him, and we hear from them whenever we discuss a topic that really matters to society, particularly when it matters most to a marginalized group.
That’s why it was disheartening for me to discover that a booth at this past weekend’s American Atheists conference was presenting the “scientific” argument against abortion:
That photo is from Surly Amy. By the time I arrived, he had been joined by a woman who was obviously well-versed in anti-choice rhetoric. I interviewed them for about an hour, and while I mostly kept my cool as they grinned and talked about how a fertilized egg deserves “the same” rights as me, I had to stop the interview shortly after the man insisted that a fertilized egg has the same rights as a 12-year old who has been raped and impregnated by her father. Then he went on to tell me that he’s one of the people who waves photos of bloody fetuses at women, and he refused to condemn the actions of anti-choice activists who surround and harass women attempting to enter Planned Parenthood. The best he could offer was that the strategy may be ineffective, and when I pressed him he agreed that specifically calling a woman a whore is “wrong.”
I told him he is a horrible person and I walked away because I couldn’t deal with it anymore. The Religious Right has successfully invaded a secular space to sell their anti-woman message, and in our ranks we have a sizable portion of people who declare that fighting back is too political. Too feminist! Too leftist. Too insular and academic.
Fuck that. If we don’t stand up and defend our values – humanism, skepticism, scientific inquiry – when they are under attack by those who would seek to further limit the rights and freedoms of the disenfranchised, then those values aren’t worth holding at all.
I’ll be editing that interview into something listenable soon, so be on the lookout for that. Also, in the course of speaking about the AA booth with Surly Amy, Amanda Marcotte, and Beth Presswood, I think we may have come up with a possible counter to this bullshit. We’ll be discussing that behind the scenes and I hope to have more to tell soon.