Vatican daily says pill pollutes, causes male infertility

January 5, 2009

The Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano published an article over the weekend claiming that the contraceptive pill pollutes the environment massively, contributes to male infertility and causes abortions. Those claims, if true, hit lots of hot buttons about science, ethics, faith and government policy. They should make headlines around the world. But apart from the Italian press, for which this is a home game, they haven’t. Why not?

(Photo: Japanese contraceptive pills, 26 Aug 1999/Kimimasa Mayama)

It’s probably because the article also sets off lots of red lights for anyone trying to assess the validity of its claims. Its author Pedro José Maria Simón Castellví, head of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, makes several scientific-sounding claims but basically asks the reader to accept them on faith. Castellví says his article is based on a 100-page report by a Swiss doctor, Rudolf Ehmann, but doesn’t quote directly from it or say where it can be found.  This can’t be for lack of space, because he fills several lines with florid praise for the report with comments such as: “The original German text is beautifully written … it is written with all the scientific requirements, without any inferiority complex toward any discussion of obstetrics and gynaecology…”

The article’s headline — “Humanae Vitae – A Scientific Prophesy” — also hints its purpose is probably more religious than scientific. Humanae Vitae is the 1968 encyclical that reaffirmed the Church ban on artificial birth control. Its 40th anniversary last July prompted a series of Catholic statements, articles and conferences defending what was probably the most controversial encyclical of the 20th century. The major bioethics paper put out by the Vatican last month made several references to Humanae Vitae to bolster its argument.

Castellví’s article is still only available in the original Italian.  Silvia Aloisi in our Rome bureau provided FaithWorld with this quick summary of the article and comment in the Italian press:

The contraceptive pill is abortive, pollutes the environment and contributes to male infertility, according to an article published in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.  The head of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations (FIAMC), Pedro José Maria Simón Castellví, wrote in the article that the pill had “devastating effects on the environment by releasing tonnes of hormones into nature.”

“We have sufficient evidence to state that a non-negligible cause of male infertilityin the West is the environmental pollution provoked by by-products of the pill,” he said.  This was a “clear anti-environmental effect demanding further explanation by manufacturers.”

Castellví gave no further details but said the findings were documented in a 100-page report recently published by his federation. He also said that the contraceptive pill, even when it had low hormone levels, was in many cases abortive because it prevented the embryo’s implantation into the woman’s womb.

The deputy chairman of the Italian Society of Contraception dismissed the article as “science fiction. “Gianbenedetto Melis told Italy’s Ansa news agency: “The pill cannot provoke an abortion because it blocks ovulation, and if there is no egg to be fertilised there can be no pregnancy.” Flavia Fronconi, a pharmacologist, said “the world is full of substances with oestrogen effects … Even a plastic bottle left in the sun releases oestrogen ‘polluting’ the liquid that we drink.”

Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, former president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, was cautious about the link made in the article between the pill and male infertility. “It’s true that the spreading of hormones in the environment increases the chances of multiple births and in turn provokes male infertility,” Sgreccia told the daily Corriere della Sera. “But there are several causes for this. And more than anything else, it stems from the fact that they are used in agriculture fertilisers, so they end up in vegetables and meat,” he said.

After some research on the Internet, I found Ehmann’s full report on the FIAMC website in the original German and a Spanish translation. There was only a four-page summary in English. In his report, Ehmann makes the claims mentioned in L’Osservatore Romano, sometimes with footnotes quoting scientific publications and sometimes not. It’s hard for a non-scientist to assess his scientific claims, but Castellví’s article gives the impression that it aims more to support doctrines than prove facts.  One sceptical blogger who got the same impression asks whether “the people responsible for the conclusion reported by Castellví are the same who were involved in the ‘research’ supporting Intelligent Design.”

Does this article reflect actual Vatican thinking or is it just a trial balloon? That’s hard to say. The fact that these charges are published in the Vatican newspaper doesn’t mean they’re official, but it does hint that someone there takes them seriously. If they want to convince others, they’ll have to provide more proof.

10 comments

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Why haven’t scientists done test on these pills if they’re dangerous?? What are the risks of taking these pills??

Posted by Rubio | Report as abusive

It is irrelevant whether Vatican “thinking” is that birth control pills cause pollution and male infertility. It has been the Catholic Church’s position that all chemical or physical (barrier) methods of avoiding pregnancy are morally wrong and, in the case of the Pill, cause abortion, which is the killing of a human being.That is the story here.

Posted by Adam | Report as abusive

The article, written in German (in which I am fluent), was copiously cited. The citations were reputable medical journals and peer reviewed publications and cited research long since accepted by the medical and scientific community. Let’s not assume that the Vatican can’t properly reference and interpret scientific works. The Vatican did not reach these conclusions on its own, just put the results in the context of faith. The proof the author seeks would require that some intellectual work, and further reading, be done.Let’s try for some unbiased reporting regarding things of faith.

Posted by Terri | Report as abusive

Terri, I am also fluent in German and I consulted Ehmann’s article before writing that post. The very first claim I looked up, that the pill contributed to male infertility, was mentioned there without any clear citation backing it up. I chose that claim because Bishop Sgreccia cast doubt on it in his interview with Corriere della Sera. That interview, which I have read in full in Italian, shows he has done further reading on the subject. Does this mean he is biased regarding things of faith?I went back to consult Ehmann’s article but, curiously, the links for it on the FIAMC website have disappeared. Attempts to retrieve it through Google (which is how I found it yesterday) also brought up a “404 Not Found” message.Maybe what is needed is more unbiased reading regarding things of faith. We neither question a religion’s doctrines nor its right to believe them. It’s not our job to ask whether Jesus rose from the dead, whether the Koran was dictated to Mohammad or whether humans are reincarnated. For example, this post did not say that the Catholic Church should support artificial birth control; that would be biased. But if people invoke the authority of science to support a doctrine, they open themselves to the question of whether the science used is sound. The same happens if people cite historical events to support a doctrine.This kind of scrutiny is not only directed at the Catholic Church. In fact, evangelicals who support creationism and intelligent design have come under far more scrutiny recently for their scientific views. Bad science makes for bad arguments, in religion as well as in politics and other fields.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

read all about it – the Catholic Church pollutes people’s minds with bigoted claptrap!

Posted by TheTruthIs... | Report as abusive

evangelicals who support creationism and intelligent design have come under far more scrutiny recently for their scientific views. Bad science makes for bad arguments, in religion as well as in politics and other fields.Ooh! You found the missing link? Thanks Tom. Please share it with us.Typically, bad science, as described by actual scientists, not Reuters blog antagonists, refers to the use of a hypothesis as fact (see global warming.) So, please describe what facts now exist supporting evolution that are not just assumptions.

Posted by Matt | Report as abusive

Could the people who are fluent in German provide a translation of the original 100 page document for we scientists who do not speak either German or Spanish?

Posted by ERic | Report as abusive

ERic, I hope someone can help you but we simply don’t have the time. We write reports from the originals and include the links whenever we can, so those who can read the original languages can consult the same source documents we use. We sometimes translate a few paragraphs to provide the full context of a quote. But translating 100 pages … sorry, that’s just too much.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Thinking about it – that is a bit much. However, it would be good if the authors could make it more available. It would be even better if the authors subjected their work to peer review – that is the standard by which science should be initially screened.

Posted by Eric | Report as abusive

Have they really test this kind of stuff? I mean, they should warned people or find a solution to prevent it’s side effects. Pills were created to help not to ruin.

Posted by FertilityDiet | Report as abusive