Vatican daily says pill pollutes, causes male infertility
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.