Reproductive Health Goes Environmental

Carole Joffe

Both the reproductive health and the environmental justice communities operate in a political climate in which the integrity of science is under attack.

One does not expect a featured speaker at the annual meeting of the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals to begin her lecture with a glowing tribute to Rachel Carson. The ARHP, after all, is a group mainly composed of clinicians who offer the full range of reproductive and sexual health services–-prenantal, contraceptive and abortion care, sex education,
treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, and so on. While Carson, who wrote The Sea Around Us in 1951, was one of the pioneers of environmentalism and remains a revered figure in sectors of that movement, it is safe to say that she is no longer a household word in American culture.

But the presence of the speaker, Charlotte Brody–-there to receive ARHP’s “Preserving Core Values in Science Award”–-and the connections she drew between Carson’s legacy and the concerns of ARHP members reflect a very promising new direction for the reproductive health movement. Brody, a distinguished environmental health advocate, is the executive director of Commonweal, a nonprofit health and research institution in Bolinas, California, and a founder of the group, Health Care without Harm.

Brody took the audience through Carson’s early work on the dangers of pesticides and other chemical agents. When she mentioned the rage Carson evoked from various quarters, including the chemical industry-–she was called “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature,” a “Communist,” and a “spinster” who had no right to “worry about genetics”–I thought of the similar demonization of Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman, some of the earliest voices for reproductive freedom in this country, and of course the harassment and abuse directed at contemporary ARHP members who are involved in abortion care.

But the most relevant part of Brody’s talk for this audience was her discussion of the specific threats to reproductive health posed by various widely used chemicals in the United States. There is mounting concern in the scientific community about the impact of these chemicals on rising infertility rates and on hazards to early fetal development. Consider the chemical compound bisphenol A (BPA), used in many plastic products, including baby bottles and microwave containers. BPA has been under increasing scrutiny because of its alleged health effects, and animal studies have linked this compound to a host of reproductive problems.

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Indicative of ARHP’s increasing involvement in the world of environmental health, Dr. Beth Jordan, the organization’s medical director, recently testified at a government hearing on BPA. She stated, “Research indicates that BPA may be related to increased trends in humans regarding abnormal penile/urethral development in males and early maturation in females, increased neurobehavioral disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity and autism, increased childhood and adult obesity….regional decreases in sperm count.”

The BPA hearing, before the National Toxicology Center, moreover revealed another point of common ground between the reproductive health community and the environmental one: both operate in a political climate in which the integrity of science is under attack. Just as reproductive health professionals have had to contend with Bush operatives posting distorted information on government websites (about the alleged link between abortion and breast cancer, about condom effectiveness, etc), so too has the environmental health community seen scientific results trumped by political concerns, with the Bush administration’s egregious behavior on global warming being the best known example. (As has been well documented, government scientists who came up with unwelcome findings found their work either censored on “edited” by political appointees). In the former case, the Bush administration is catering to its religious right supporters, in the latter case, to its economically conservative, anti-regulatory supporters. But the net effect in both cases is the same: the health and well-being of Americans is jeopardized because of political considerations. With respect to BPA, numerous scientific groups, including the ARHP, have accused the National Toxicology Program of relying disproportionately on industry-funded studies-–which somehow found no problems with BPA–-as it prepared its final report on the safety of this chemical.

ARHP’s incorporation of environmental health concerns once again shows how important it is for groups working in the reproductive sphere to reaffirm the broadest possible mandate for this work. Becoming visible players in campaigns for environmental health allows groups like ARHP to make the point which should be obvious, but after thirty-four years of polarization around abortion, sadly appears lost on many Americans. Those clinicians who provide abortion and contraception also are profoundly committed to helping people have the families they want.

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