Categories: Science

Science isn’t Science if It’s about Abortion

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:


Reason: Feedback/Suggestions


First Name: Byron


Location: Mn

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.

Best Regards,


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.

Rebecca Watson :Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

View Comments (79)

  • It seems there are a lot of people who think they are using reason and science to arrive at their conclusions, but who hold opinions that are totally at odds with the available evidence. These people proceed to tell the rest of us we're not being skeptical. The emailer is clearly part of this group. Part of the problem may be unsound reasoning, but even sound reasoning will arrive at faulty conclusions every time if the premises are false. Skeptics are supposed to be skilled at evaluating evidence and finding the wheat among the chaff, but it doesn't always work that way, especially when there's a lot of chaff and especially when one is strongly attached to a point of view. Of course, the comments about solar output and the fundeamental lack of understanding of the carbon cycle show a level of ignorance that seems almost willful on the part of anyone claiming to have a skeptical view on climate change and marks the difference between a denialist and a skeptic. A skeptic has made a good faith effor to understand the evidence and the arguments, which the emailer has not.
    Part of the problem here is that the emailer has not embraced a key part of skepticism: accepting the disomfiture and cognitive dissonance that will eventually occur to anyone who is being a good skeptic, unless they are somehow supremely skeptical about everything from birth and manage to avoid accepting even some pretty sound seeming scientific claims that eventually are proved wrong.
    Many people think skepticism is about being right, it's not, it's about being wrong and accepting it and changing one's viewpoint. I had this expeience with organic food, and I still get rankled a bit when it's discussed on the SGU. But I've accepted that sustainable agriculture and organic are not always synonymous.
    The emailer hasn't learned how to be wrong.
    Anyway, I think the fact that this email sent me off into thoughts on climate change and everything I've written here is why I lost track of the link to the abortion issue in my first comment. The abortion issue seems rather more pressing at the moment, but the email led me to these thoughts on skepticism and being wrong through climate change, rather than through reproductive rights, but the same issue applies - anyone who thinks that skepticism and reason confirms everything they believe, always has and always will, is doing it wrong.

  • Clearly you forget that science only counts when it validates your preexisting subjective opions.  Everything else is pesudo-science. 
    In all seriousness, may I suggest that for the sake of scientific experimentation, in a future episode, when a reproductive/gender/sexuality/etc news item is to be discusses, Rebecca's position is randomly assigned to one of the other Skeptics, and we compare the relative volume and tone of the invective that comes in response. 
    Just a thought

  • What is with that black square in the picture, it looks like he's exposed under the desk and got censored.  Perhaps that's how the issue makes hime feel.

  • The blatant misuse of the term falsifiability makes wish I could go back in time and punch Karl Popper in the nose. Also how can you read 1 philosophy of science bit and talk like you understand the whole thing? Shit, even Popper backed away from some of his claims based upon arguments that arose after he published.

  • What I'm not getting is how any logic can ever come up with "abortion is wrong" if it isn't based in unthinking misogyny.
    Even if you believe that life begins at conception and that abortion involves killing a baby... we have the right to kill home intruders who are threatening our lives and stealing our resources if that's the only possible means of stopping them. Why would we have the right to kill a person who is in our home against our will, but not a person who is in our body against our will?
    The logic is probably "innocence", in that a baby isn't choosing to do harm. But if a human has invaded our home and is trashing the place and threatening our health and our lives without intent to do so (for instance, they are mentally ill), and it is impossible to remove them without killing them, the same people who are virulently anti-choice are generally the most in favor of the right to kill them. They aren't following an innocence doctrine there. And from a utilitarian perspective, the innocence of the person harming you makes no difference, if the only way you can get them to stop is to kill them.
    Some argue that consent to be pregnant is granted when you have sex, therefore the fetus is there by your permission. Firstly, this is the same logic that says that once you get married you can never refuse sex with your husband, that once you give a man permission to start fucking you you cannot tell him to stop even if you realize you're having a heart attack, and that once you have been sexually active with one man you can't refuse any man -- it's implying consent to a much broader range than you actually consented to and it makes consent irrevocable. This would be illegal in any other context.
    And secondly, it's wrong anyway, because pregnancy is a fairly rare outcome of sex. The notion that humans are biologically "supposed" to have sex just for pregnancy is fallacious on the face of it -- human women are sexually receptive all the time, not just when fertile; we are capable of having and wanting sex after hysterectomies; we are capable of having and wanting anal sex, oral sex, and sex with tools such as dildos, none of which can get us pregnant; and we're capable of having and wanting sex when we're post-menopausal. Our sex drive exists independently of our fertility in all respects (there's some tiny amount of evidence that maybe we're more lustful when fertile, but in comparison to, say, the evidence that exists that cats want sex when they are fertile, it is microscopic.) Human women are fertile approximately three days out of 30, and there's two additional days where if we have sex the sperm will last long enough that we'll ovulate and then conceive... so the odds of a woman getting pregnant on any given day are 1 in 6 in the absence of *any* contraception, and then early miscarriage makes the odds even higher. This is not the profile for a behavior that implies consent. It's much more like saying that when you get into a car you consent to have a car accident, so you were immoral to buy insurance and wear a seat belt.
    So even if abortion is the killing of a human being, it's not murder... it's justifiable self defense. And the only way you can argue it isn't is if you argue that women have so few rights that even though a man has the right to kill an intruder in his home, a woman doesn't have the right to kill an intruder IN HER BODY.

  • I kind of feel like expanding a bit on my earlier point:

    Have you ever noticed that the "big tent" folks don't mind incuding rich older men who hold and even promote flat-out irrational, unreasonable positions… but feminism is simply a bridge too far?

    It isn't just that, though... it seems to be that according to a pretty vocal faction the skeptics "Big Tent" is too small for all sorts of things that offend right-wing sensitivities: feminism, anti-racism, abortion rights, climate change, that sort of thing. And while those people and their spineless accommodationist enablers claim that they are avoiding "controversial" issues in order to avoid bias and alienating people, they are doing the exact opposite. 
    They don't want SGU(as an example) and skeptics in general talking about climate change or feminism, but they have no problem with Penn Jillette being a climate change denier and a sexist asshole... so by trying to silence one while supporting the other they are showing a very clear bias. And the so-called skeptic and atheist leaders who embrace Penn Jillette and Bill Maher and their irrational viewpoints while trying to minimize the voices of people who speak rationally about issues that ALSO bother people, they are absolutely taking sides. You can't say "we're trying to not alienate people" because by taking sides that's exactly what you're doing. What you are saying is "if we have to alienate someone, we'd prefer to alienate feminists, because we value them less than we do anti-feminists." Skeptical organizations over and over again show that they value men over women, white people over non-white people, right-wingers over progressives, by the choices that they make. There's no such thing as "neutral" when you decide what topics are fit for discussion, and which are not. 




  • For the life of me I can't understand some of these sorts of skeptics who insist that we stay away from political issues.
    Just what do they think we are discussing when we address consumer rights issues? I would be willing to bet you get barely any email at all when you suggest that perhaps the government should do something about Kevin Trudeau. Where are the complainy pants white dudes then? How about separation of church and state, as it pertains to the marginalization of atheists. The teaching of evolution and cosmology in schools. I guess those are not political issues after all.

    I'm forced to conclude that these the line being crossed is not the line between pure hard facts and ethics. Skeptics crossed that line as soon as they became activists. The line being crossed is the one between issues that directly and obviously effect them, and issues which don't.
    Please, someone tell me how I'm wrong.....I would love to be wrong here believe me.

  • Just a thought... if a fetus has all the rights of a human, and a women dies in childbirth, shouldn't the fetus be arrested for manslaughter or negligence causing death or something like that?

    • hmm... if a personhood amendment passed in a state with 'stand your ground' laws, could you 'kill your baby' in self defense.

      • If fetuses are people and corporations are people, what's next?  Dead people are people, too?  I think we've discovered the wedge issue of the zombie rights movement!

    While it has certainly become popular of late to dabble in the notions that engage the common female mind, I believe this rash experiment has gone too far. The disputatious nature of the woman you employ in your reports upon the status of the science and rations with which serious men engage themselves has no place amongst such endeavors. Frivolous female patter about babies and, for God's sake, reproduction, are among the last things a gentleman wishes to hear when putting himself to the task of listening to the Skeptical Man's Guide to the Heavens.
    As I'm sure you will agree, the value of one woman's opinion is not worth the cost of the loss of a single male listener.
    Basil Smugnuts, Esq.
    Smuggery, USA

    Update: They've now posted two new blog posts in reference to the questions that arise from the above. See below:
    Note from their president in which she claims that she grew up in a Methodist church (no mention of the Catholic group she belonged to) and that she has "stopped caring" about faith: 
    Blog post by the group with the title "Atheists don't believe in us" which once again indicates a lack of identification with atheism by the group: 
    In this blog post they also claim to have spent " a lot of time advocating for secularism in the pro-life movement;". Mind you, this is the same group who their president had claimed in 2010 that "SecularProLife.org isn't about Christian-bashing or arguing over church and state issues."