Tuesday, January 20, 2009

It is wise to be wary of the pill

Shanahan, A. (2009 Jan. 10). It's wise to be wary of the pill. The Australian. Retrieved: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,,24891709-7583,00.html

THIS week news of an important report was published in L'Osservatore Romano which, if you will excuse the painful pun, should have been a godsend to eager environmentalists. After all these people are great doomsayers and the contents of the report was the stuff of science fiction horror stories.

According to the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, an alarming rise in male infertility in developed nations is possibly caused by the quantities of synthetic female hormones, particularly estrogen, in the food chain and water. These quantities are directly attributable to increased use of the contraceptive pill and hormone replacement therapy.
The original report published in German has been widely publicised but mysteriously, the only response to this terrible scenario, which seems to be with us just as surely as global warming, were a couple of letters in this publication and in The Sydney Morning Herald that could have come straight from a 19th-century Old Bigot's handbook of insults. They hysterically decried the whole thing as a Vatican misogynistic plot. Never mind that it didn't come from the Vatican. But apparently, in some people's minds, any taint of Catholicism is enough to justify screaming "ignorant, stupid, unscientific" and of course predictably "misogyny".

Strange then that in 1998 women's groups and environmentalists formed an alliance in Japan against the legalisation of the contraceptive pill. Apparently some Japanese women and environmentalists, including the Women's Network for Ecology, were worried enough about the effect of introducing synthetic hormones in a country that relies on very intensive agriculture and aquaculture to campaign against its legalisation. That is aside from widespread suspicion among Japanese women that there is a definite link between the use of the pill and breast cancer in their Western sisters.

The evidence that synthetic hormones can have grotesque environmental effects has actually been around for a long time and it is mounting. As long ago as the 1980s, studies were done in the US which showed the effects of estrogen pollution on wildlife, famously alligators in Florida with deformed genitals. But more recently, in February 2008, the University of Cardiff published a study that claimed a link between sexual deformities in birds around sewerage outlets of large British cities and the increased amount of estrogen finding its way into rivers and estuaries.

Recently during research for a story on the viability of using recycled water in Canberra, I came across several papers that pointed to the problem of estrogen in recycled water. Indeed, according to Canberra Hospital professor Peter Collignon, an opponent of recycling sewage water into the potable supply, estrogen can be more of a problem in recycled water than microbes because it cannot be filtered out and we simply do not know how well it breaks down. Just as the Romans drinking from lead cups unwittingly caused infertility in themselves, perhaps we are seeing after 30 years of contraceptive pill use the long-term effects of introducing artificial estrogen into our wider environment. So you see this is not just a preoccupation of the misogynistic old Vatican.

But how can it be misogynistic to point out that artificial hormones can have a bad effect on men as well as women? And who exactly are the misogynists? Is it the people warning of the possible dangers of long-term exposure to artificial estrogen for both sexes, or the hysterical letter writers and doctors who seem to be saying, "There dear, just go ahead and take your pill and everything will be all right?"

As a woman I think Australian women ought to think again about this great biochemical boon to the human race, or perhaps I should say to men. Australian women have one of the highest rates of contraceptive pill use in the world. Most women feel obliged to use it as soon as they become sexually active and the average time women stay on the pill is 10 years. That is 10 years of suppressing one's normal hormonal cycle and replacing it with artificial hormones with all the physical and psychological ramifications, including the decline of libido.

However, even though we have the highest rate of breast cancer in the world, and there is a lot of research pointing to the pill as at least a partially causative factor, many doctors (even some of my own acquaintance) have no compunction in prescribing it to girls who have just reached puberty. In fact one doctor I know told me she feels legally obliged to give it to any sexually active girl, no matter what age. Furthermore, not only is long-term pill use implicated in infertility and sexually transmitted disease, what is worse is it has not prevented our abortion rate from being one of the world's highest.

There are so many reasons for being wary of the contraceptive pill. Why are we not questioning its prevalence?

The reason is, of course, that it is the sacred cow of the sexual revolution. One imaginative letter writer claimed the Catholic view of the pill was that it was "the great Satan", and actually that is not a bad description. It was marketed as an instrument of sexual freedom, and it has provided that, particularly for men. But one might ask if for women it has been the means of sexual liberation or just a way of turning us into empty vessels for sex? Is it like the sexual revolution itself: a pretty and alluring package that turns out to be - for both sexes - like a series of empty boxes, one inside the other. At the end, there is nothing but an empty box.

The environmental effects of the pill on men may in fact gradually reveal the extent of the damage to our whole society, something that Francis Fukuyama points out in his essay, The Great Disruption: that we can't just introduce something such as this for 30 years and not expect unforeseen consequences, moral, social and, of course, physical. But tragically it will be young men and boys who suffer before women will also free themselves of this burden.

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