PolitiFact admits complete ignorance, “fact-checks” anyway

Yes, it really does.

“PolitiFact does not do medical or scientific analysis.” But we do do argumentum ad auctoritatem!

PolitiFact put out a “fact-check” yesterday that purports to debunk the link between induced abortion and breast cancer. Instead, it provides a guide on how to hoist yourself with logical fallacies – namely, the appeal to authority (“it’s true because experts say so”) and the argumentum ad populum (“it’s true because lots of people say so”).

They’re not shy about this, either: “PolitiFact does not do medical or scientific analysis. We rely, as we do in other areas, on the most reliable and independent sources available.”



Now, the problem with the appeal to authority is that it’s an invitation to play “dueling authorities.” So I’ll do that real quick. (Emphases added.)

Department of Radiology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2005-2006): “Risk factors that have specific relevance to young women include reproductive factors, history of induced abortion or miscarriage, oral contraceptive use, smoking, and radiation exposure, most specifically for treatment of Hodgkin Disease.”

Department of Breast Surgery, St. George’s Hospital, London, U.K. (2005): “The hormonal changes that take place in pregnancy cause breast tissue to proliferate and differentiate. Abortion interrupts this process and may leave the proliferated, undifferentiated breast tissue at higher risk of carcinogenesis.” “There is no evidence to support a link between spontaneous abortion and breast cancer. Absence of a link with induced abortion is less clear, and further research should concentrate on investigating any relationship.

Department of Surgery, College of Medical Sciences, University of Benin (2005): “A protective role for xenoestrogens has been postulated and evidence is emerging in support of an increased breast cancer risk with abortion and prolonged use of postmenopausal hormone replacement therapy.”

Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2003): “Induced abortion

is a prevalent response to an unintended pregnancy. The long-term health consequences are poorly investigated and conclusions must be drawn from observational studies.” “Reviewers were mixed on whether subsequent breast neoplasia can be linked to induced abortion, although the sole meta-analysis found a summary odds ratio of 1.2. Whatever the effect of induced abortion on breast cancer risk, a young woman with an unintended pregnancy clearly sacrifices the protective effect of a term delivery should she decide to abort and delay childbearing.”

University of Incarnate Word, San Antonio, TX (1997): “Early FFTP [first full-term pregnancy] confers protection [against breast cancer], while induced abortion confers risk. Most specific and controlled variables studies indicate 150% risk for abortions performed on women younger than 18 years of age.”

Then there’s Dr. Louise Brinton, the NCI researcher who helped organize the 2003 workshop PolitiFact mentions. Turns out she reversed her position on the abortion-breast cancer link in 2009. To wit:

A national study by Jessica Dolle et al. of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center examining the relationship between oral contraceptives (OCs) and triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), an aggressive form of breast cancer associated with high mortality, in women under age 45, contained an admission from Dr. Brinton and her colleagues that abortion raises breast cancer risk by 40%.

Brinton’s study, published in the peer-reviewed Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, shows an odds ratio (OR) of 1.4 for all instances of breast cancer for women who have an abortion. (For women who have never had one, the OR is 1.0 – basically a “control” number to which to compare all the others.) The OR is 0.8 for women aged 20-29 who have carried one baby to term. (Again, 1.0 for women who have had no children.) For women younger than 20 who have carried one baby to term, it’s 0.6.

Put simply, increasing abortions was associated with an increased risk for all forms of breast cancer, including triple-negative breast cancer, which is especially nasty. And it’s not a matter of “breaking even”; having the abortion leaves you worse off than you were before you got pregnant.

(Keep in mind that PolitiFact uses the NCI, and the conference Brinton helped organize, to discredit the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer on the basis of “response bias.” The CABC addresses and disputes the “response bias” objection, but PolitiFact does not see fit to mention that in its fact-check.)

This is where PolitiFact would most likely move to the argumentum ad populum: “You may have some studies, but we have more studies.” Michael Crichton addressed this dangerous treatment of science better than I can:

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world.

In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.

In short, it doesn’t matter how many studies you have if they’re wrong.

So who’s wrong?

Well, aside from the data, there’s a big commonsense reason to suspect a connection between induced abortion and breast cancer. You can find it in PolitiFact’s own sources. I’ll use one of the National Cancer Institute links to demonstrate. (I can’t use the RCOG link, which basically says, Just trust us.) According to the NCI, “[w]omen who have their first full-term pregnancy at an early age have a decreased risk of developing breast cancer later in life.”

So here’s the scenario: you’re a young woman, and you’re pregnant. According to the NCI, this reduces your risk of developing breast cancer. (It’s not hard to find a lot of material supporting this claim.) But then you get an abortion…and your risk doesn’t change?

If you leave that pregnancy alone, it comes to term, thus decreasing your risk of breast cancer. But the NCI and others are going to tell us that cutting off a process that reduces your risk definitely does not increase your risk?

With this in mind, it’s easy to see why even PolitiFact’s own sources are squeamish about following its lead in calling the abortion-breast cancer link “a ridiculous claim.” See, for example, the WHO link, titled “INDUCED ABORTION DOES NOT INCREASE THE RISK OF BREAST CANCER,” capital letters and all. The actual text backpedals quite a bit: “Two major studies have been carried out using this methodology [historical cohort study], and neither found an increased risk of breast cancer associated with first trimester abortion.” When you get past the theatrics – some might call it misinformation – the best you’ll get is “we didn’t find one.”

Of course, at least a few people “found one” when it came to puerperal fever (per Crichton above)…and the “consensus” threw out the evidence for 125 years. But no such thing could happen today, right?

Here’s the bottom line: PolitiFact’s own sources attest to the likelihood that carrying a pregnancy to term reduces the risk of breast cancer. An abortion cuts off that existing protection. Therefore, abortion increases the risk of breast cancer.

This is as close to “settled” as we’re going to get on this science at this time. If you want to play appeal to authority, reputable sources say there is a link between abortion and breast cancer. If you want to play argumentum ad populum, history has shown enough times that themoney masses are wrong.

We saw something like this in the debates over H.R. 1797, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. Democrats like Jerrold Nadler tried to dismiss the scientific evidence for fetal pain because it’s disputed by other experts (appeal to authority), or because it’s “an outlier” (argumentum ad populum). Abortion proponents flatly refused to address the information on its merits. So here’s what it came down to: We can’t say with 100% certainty that pre-born children don’t feel pain from a dismemberment abortion. We’d prefer that our society continue aborting them anyway.

Now, in the face of significant challenges to the prospect that there’s no link whatsoever between induced abortion and breast cancer, PolitiFact and the abortion lobby would have doctors say nothing about it to women considering abortion. Where less invested heads might go with “better safe than sorry” (to say nothing of “informed consent”!), the abortion industry, who profits handsomely off women’s ignorance, sticks with “better rich than safe.” And “fact-checking” abortion-supporters appear okay with that.

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