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Francis’ Laudato Si’ Sparks Debate: Is Birth Control in Our Water Systems Causing Infertility, Gender Issues?

Tebaldo Vinciguerra

Photograph courtesy of CNA

Tebaldo Vinciguerra

Diane Montagna - published on 06/25/15

And if so, why is the United Nations pushing the Pill on poor nations?

VATICAN CITY — One aspect of Pope Francis’ new encyclical Laudato si’ that didn’t attract much attention was the harmful effects on human hormonal systems caused by chemicals entering the water supply. 

A growing body of scientific evidence says such chemicals, often found in contraceptives and birth control pills, are creating so-called “intersex fish” and wildlife, and could be seriously threatening human health, sexuality and pregnancies. 

To discuss this in greater detail, Aleteia spoke with Tebaldo Vinciguerra (pictured above), who explained why it is a “fundamental duty” of governments, legislators and the business community to act honestly and responsibly in this regard. He also discussed the paradox that the United Nations and environmentalists are often pushing for contraceptives to be used in the developing world, despite the potential danger they present to the environment, and why it’s important to encourage what Pope Francis has called an “honest debate” over the issue. 

Tebaldo Vinciguerra has served since 2011 as an Official of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, one of the Vatican dicasteries most involved in the drafting of the encyclical. He follows issues of development and “ecology” in the broadest sense of the word, in light of the Church’s social doctrine. His particular interests include agricultural development and the management of natural resources such as water, energy, land and minerals.

Vinciguerra is a married layman and father.

Mr. Vinciguerra, Laudato si’ states that “chemical products utilized in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, … Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected” (LS § 21). Your thoughts on this passage?

It is a point to be taken seriously, but not only because the preparation of the encyclical benefited from scientific contributions. Remember that Bergoglio himself worked briefly as a chemical technician. Chemical products indeed can threaten human health and, as the Holy Father states, too often action is taken too late or there is just no action at all: there is neither prevention nor remedy nor compensation.

Human activities, e.g. food production, pharmaceuticals and other goods and services, and their consumption — in short the entire cycle of production — must be organized in the most sustainable way possible, by constantly pursuing the best balance between respect for ecosystems, efficiency and productivity, and considering the various resources used without ever compromising on respect for workers, for societies, on the employment rate and on quality.

As regards the latter, a fundamental duty of the business community and those involved in policy making is to act honestly and responsibly, especially in choosing and processing commodities, since the quality and health of foodstuffs or other items must be a high level priority. The conscious marketing of harmful goods, resulting from accidents or incorrect procedures in production and packaging is unacceptable.

Nor can we tolerate that certain goods — supplied, for example, by the chemical or pharmaceutical industry — continue to be marketed, when producers and researchers have verified the damage that at times they can cause to health, although they are not prohibited by law and, due to lack of information, the public has not yet massively mobilized against their use. The precautionary principle must guide behavior and prevent the production and distribution, albeit profitable, of goods likely to be harmful.

Scientific studies have shown that synthetic hormones from contraceptives and birth control pills, particularly EE2, are passing into the water system and causing male fish to mutate and change sex (so-called intersex fish). Studies have uncovered similar threatening abnormalities in wildlife. Scientists have suggested that the presence of synthetic hormones in the water system is also causing health problems in humans, such as premature or irregular sexual development. Some hypotheses even link the presence of these synthetic hormones in the water supply with the growing prevalence of gender issues and homosexuality. Nobody speaks about this.

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is informed about these studies and has sought to shine light on this troubling question in its recent book Terra e Cibo (§ 50, the English version Land and Food, will be released soon). Some important organizations, such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Food Safety Authority are monitoring this issue and have already released alarming reports.

In recent months I have also received material on the problem from North American universities; from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), who have been following this for years; from individual European and South American experts; and from religious.

Specifically, it’s feared — and the body of scientific evidence is growing — that certain chemical substances may have negative side effects on the human hormonal system, also known as the endocrine system. This system plays a crucial role in maintaining the physiological equilibrium of the human body, as well as in regulating body growth, metabolism and sexual development and function. It is believed that chemical substances called endocrine disruptors can have troubling effects on human health and organisms in the environment, particularly at critical stages of development. Some are found in nature, others are manmade, such as pesticides and cosmetics, and they can also be the effect of certain hormonal therapies and drugs, such as the contraceptive pill. Their acting mechanism is still being examined, but the fact that they could seriously threaten human health and sexuality and pregnancies is a source of great concern. It is a direct threat to mankind. So yes, the problem does involve contraceptives and birth control pills, but also other substances.

Isn’t there a paradox in this? Major international organizations, think tanks, environmental groups, and governments mainly of wealthy nations, as we know, are promoting a depopulation, pro-abortion agenda, and imposing birth control policies on poor and developing nations, especially though not exclusively in Africa. Laudato si’ puts it this way: “At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health’” (§ 50). Often, these same institutions claim to be the most concerned about the environment, and yet the contraceptives they are seeking to impose are a threat to human life, human health, and the environment.

Sadly, it’s true. These agendas are being put forward under the cover of “reproductive health” or a distorted vision of “human rights.” Often, then, those who devise and promote them use “a green rhetoric” (LS § 49) and a misleading neo-Malthusiansim what leads a privileged few cynically to do everything possible to conserve “the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels” (LS § 27).

The Pope is clear: “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption” (LS § 50).

So yes, there is something of a paradox that can be found watermarked in various parts of Laudato si’. Rich countries promote birth control in poor countries, precisely in those, as the climate scientist John Schellnhuber explained at the presentation of the encyclical, consume and pollute less; those that have less technical and financial capacity to purify water efficiently and therefore find themselves with water supplies damaged by the use of birth control devices and other contraceptive pills.

The scandalous paradox resides in the fact that, “in different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future” (LS § 52), and this due to a distorted use of advancements in technology. Speaking of biotechnologies, the Pope explains that: “Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely” (LS § 104), especially since contemporary man has not been trained to use power well: the “immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience” (LS § 105).

What can the Church do about this?
The Church is proposing a truly integral and inclusive development, for example, as the United Nations adopts its future sustainable development goals. The Church can also contribute to creating “the culture needed to confront this crisis”. This is precisely what the Holy Father is doing, by stressing a distorted anthropocentrism (LS § 69), consumerism (LS § 50), the technocratic paradigm (LS § 101), relativism (LS § 122), indifference (LS § 52) and the throwaway culture (LS § 22). She can also do so by denouncing abstract analyses and strategies that fail to face the problems effectively or that — especially among some environmental movements — defend nature but do not really commit themselves to defending the human person.

More specifically, as regards endocrine disruptors, obviously research and an “honest debate (…) among experts” (LS § 61) must be encouraged. Then, especially on a high-risk issue like this, governments, legislators and business need to act swiftly and with determination on the basis of scientific findings.

Was Humanae vitae prophetic?
Paul VI wrote Humanae vitae at a time when, to quote him: “many fear that the world population is going to grow faster than available resources” (HV § 2). With keen foresight, he was concerned about the possible adoption of anti-life measures by governments in their “attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country,” and he even foresaw the imposition of the use of contraceptives (HV § 17). Pope Francis is on the same front: with his paragraph on reproductive politics in the newly published encyclical, Laudato si’, and with his now famous statement in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium: “It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life” (EG § 214).

Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.

ContraceptionPope Francis
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