Dr. Dawg

The Galileo gambit, abortion and Mrs. Kay

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If a scientific consensus were always correct, there would be no progress in scientific discovery. A minority, sometimes of one, can be right. But that doesn’t mean that the minority is always right. The latter position, usually taken by political quacks with a major case of confirmation bias, is called the Galileo gambit.

Want some examples? Well, there’s environmental contrarian Bjørn Lomborg (whose dissent from the global warming consensus, in fairness, seems to be less than absolute, although the right wing loves to cite him), and Peter Duesberg, whose claim that AIDS isn’t caused by HIV was eagerly adopted by South African president Thabo Mbeki at a cost of an estimated one third of a million lives).

In the non-scientific realm there are, of course, countless other voices in the wilderness: Holocaust-deniers and Truthers for whom the very volume of the contrary evidence is proof of conspiracy; purveyors of fake cancer and AIDS cures, presidential birth certificate sleuths, and fluoridated water alarmists.

Enter the National Post’s “pro-life” Barbara Kay, who, perhaps as genuinely tired of the metaphysical arguments as everyone else by now—call it PMS (post-M312 syndrome)—seeks to enlist science in her cause.

Women seeking abortion should be told the facts, she claims—and she thereupon produces a litany of sciencey untruths, to be administered, inter alia, by state compulsion.

We should not be looking at regulations over women’s bodies, but at regulations over their minds. By that I mean we should consider imposing a set of regulations to ensure that when abortions take place, they are occurring in the light of informed consent.

Women in 2012, however, don’t need no thought control. And the last thing they need is to be force-fed lies in the guise of information.

Abortion, avers Kay, causes premature birth, increases the likelihood of death, including suicide, and causes breast cancer, too. And she’s got studies!

Let’s take a closer look.

To begin with, several of the papers she cites don’t say what she says they say. For instance:

As I have written previously, more than one previous induced abortion (IA) is a well-known risk for a premature birth in a future pregnancy. This is not a hypothesis. It is settled science.


The lead researcher Dr Reija Klemetti, from the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Helsinki, said: “Our results suggest that induced abortions before the first birth, particularly three or more abortions, are associated with a marginally increased risk during the first birth.

“However, the increased risk is very small, particularly after only one or even two abortions, and women should not be alarmed by our findings.”

The way the study was designed means the researchers cannot say for certain that abortions result in premature births, merely that they had spotted a link between the two.

More here and here.

Moving on from that little bit of “settled science,” let’s head over to abortion as an alleged cause of death. Here’s one study she relies upon, co-authored by our old friends Priscilla Coleman and David Reardon, veteran anti-choice crusaders.

Let’s look at a possibly more dispassionate one that she also cites, a fifteen-year-old study from Finland. Pay close attention:

The death certificates of all fertile-aged women who died in 1987-94 in Finland (n = 9,192) were linked to the Birth, Abortion, and Hospital Discharge Registers (n=513,472 births, 93,807 induced abortions, and 71,701 other ended pregnancies) to identify the women who had been pregnant during their last year of life. All deaths that occurred up to 1 year after the end of pregnancy were classified according to their connection to pregnancy. Results. In total, 281 qualifying deaths were found. Only in 22% of the death certificates was the pregnancy or its end mentioned. The mortality rate was 41 per 100,000 registered ended pregnancies (27 for births, 48 for miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies, and 101 for abortions). The maternal mortality rate depended greatly on which of these 281 cases were defined as maternal deaths. The early maternal mortality rate varied between 5.6 and 6.8 per 100,000 live births, and the late maternal mortality rate between 0.6 and 2.5 depending on the definition used. The classification of other than direct maternal deaths was ambiguous, especially in case of late cancers, cardio- and cerebrovascular diseases, and early suicides. The official Finnish figure for early maternal mortality (6.0/100,000 live births) seems to be a good estimate, although only 65% of individual deaths were unambiguously classified. [emphases added]

So, to sum up: in a seven-year period, women who died within a year of ending their pregnancy by abortion, miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy or live birth amounted to 281, a miniscule sample by any standard. Furthermore, only 65% of that sample were unambiguously maternal deaths—183, by my calculation.

To top it off, the researcher’s aim, pointed out elsewhere, had nothing to do with abortion vs. live birth, but with classification issues: “Our aim was to study the impact of record linkage and different classification principles on maternal mortality rate.”

And the first one she cites? Again, as noted elsewhere, the study Kay links to outlines a widening gap between mortality due to childbirth and that due to abortion (much lower). While this doesn’t contradict her assertion that the risk of death increases with each abortion—in fact, it doesn’t speak to that claim at all—the paper hardly helps her overall argument!

Does abortion cause subsequent trauma leading to mental problems? Again, apparently not, and not. As for an earlier study in Finland* (Kay conflates this with the one she cites previously), wherein relative suicide rates associated with pregnancy are discussed, see “Suicides after pregnancy” (p.902-3), and the authors’ forthright response.

Finally, the medical consensus, after considerable study, has completely repudiated the thesis that abortion causes breast cancer. One anti-choice activist and academic stands nearly alone:

The most prominent advocate of the position that abortion is linked to breast cancer is a good example of an agenda-driven scientist. Joel Brind, a Baruch College professor, identifies his conversion from Judaism to Christianity as the turning point in his career which until that time had been focused on general endocrinology. After his conversion experience, he joined the National Right to Life Committee.5 “With a new belief in a meaningful universe, I felt compelled to use science for its noblest, life-saving purpose,” he wrote in a magazine published for a medical audience by the Christian Right group Focus on the Family.

His research is not taken seriously by his colleagues. But this nonsense is still being peddled by anti-choice activists, sometimes in the pages of our mainstream media.

The evidence-based conclusion from all this foofaraw? Abortion is safer than childbirth. Period.

Now, in conclusion, recall what actually happened to Galileo. His heliocentric hypothesis was based upon careful observations of the stars. Some other astronomers objected to that hypothesis on perfectly scientific grounds—Galileo’s inability to demonstrate a stellar parallax. They weren’t a bunch of priest-ridden yokels: many of them were, in fact, learned, science-minded Jesuits, and Galileo was well-liked by that fraternity until his sharp tongue alienated them. Moreover, Galileo had powerful friends in the Church hierarchy as well, including the Pope—until he lampooned the latter in one of his publications.

There was, in other words, honest disagreement among the scientists of the day, based upon interpretations of the fragmentary evidence available. There was no voice crying out against orthodoxy, but lively debate among colleagues. Contrast that with the evidence-free ideological positions taken and tenaciously defended today on global warming, AIDS and, as we have seen, alleged abortion risks.

If we really wanted to inform young women heading into abortion clinics, as Barbara Kay demands, the current evidence would permit them to be told that ending their pregnancies is safer than having a child by several orders of magnitude (this from one of Kay’s own sources), and that the chances of physical or psychological sequelae are negligible.

Needless to say, this isn’t quite what she has in mind. She’s promising another column on the subject, too. Bring it.

* Gissler M, Hemminki E, Lönnqvist J. “Suicides after preg­nancy in Finland, 1987-­94: register linkage study.” BMJ 1996;313:1431­-4.


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