Baby Trap: Why Anti-Environmental Evangelicals are Pro-Life Hypocrites
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Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 02:49:32 AM EST
The 22 conservative Religious Right evangelicals who opposed a positive evangelical position on environmental protection, described by Carlos, are also outspoken "pro-life" activists. Some of the biggest: James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association. In the name of fetal right-to-life, they feverishly try to snatch away women's decision-making on reproductive rights. And that makes these anti-environmental positions about the most hypocritical on the planet because environmental degradation most damages the fetus- the fragile growing cells in a pregnant woman's body. That's more than ironic - it's a travesty.
Damage to fetuses from pollutants causes spontaneous abortion. Toxins result in babies born with lifelong damage from cancer, incomplete development, future infertility. But, as I describe below, the "sanctity of life" crowd opposes environmental safeguards that will insure healthy fetuses, seemingly because it requires opposition to conservative corporate interests that they also support.

What's the womb issue? Here's one story released this week about the damage from womb exposure to mercury.

The Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration say high levels of mercury are of particular concern for women in their childbearing years because exposure in the womb can cause neurological damage and other health problems to fetuses.

The story points out:

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have been pushing to drastically reduce mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants .... Mercury released from these plants, among other sources, settles into waterways, contaminating fish and the people who eat them.

The Environmental Working Group has tested umbilical cord blood and found 287 manmade chemicals, of which 180 cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects. "Industrial pollution begins in the womb," EWG reported.

Chemical exposures in the womb or during infancy can be dramatically more harmful than exposures later in life. Substantial scientific evidence demonstrates that children face amplified risks from their body burden of pollution; the findings are particularly strong for many of the chemicals found in this study, including mercury, PCBs and dioxins. Children's vulnerability derives from both rapid development and incomplete defense systems ....

Even tiny amounts of chemicals can interfere with fetal development. Thousands of studies have confirmed that neurological damage and infertility can be traced to endocrine disruption from chemical pollutants passed through the placenta, as first described in Our Stolen Future.

So what does this have to do with the Religious Right? Why am I writing about environmental damage to fetal health on Talk2Action?

Because the same religious conservatives who are decrying pro-environmental "stewardship" by evangelical leaders are also waging the culture war and doing so in the name of the fetus. Blogger Bartholomew notes that the pro-environmental evangelical position has "caused some controversy" and

has been criticized in particular by senator James Inhofe, who believes that global warming is a massive conspiracy cooked up by feminists and homosexuals.

The "culture war" offers far better promotional opportunities for the religious right than environmental activism.  Explained a debunker of environmental evangelicals on Crosswalk

(W)e must worry about cultural engagement; gospel advance; and being salt and light. But again, we need not worry about global warming.

Hypocrisy particularly rises to the fore when environmental regulation is proposed to protect fetal health. In 2003, California legislator Wilma Chan proposed regulation to scale back the use of PBDEs, a fire retardant chemical that causes fetal damage, as my colleague Margie Kelly and I described in this article.

Chan was prompted by a 2001 report by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, which found that small amounts of PDBEs can pass to a fetus through the placenta, causing nervous system damage, brain impairment or thyroid hormone imbalance. "Large numbers of women may carry these chemicals in their bodies and pass them on," said Chan.

But opposition arose from conservative lawmakers.

"I found it totally ironic that conservative legislators are concerned with harm to the fetus when it deals with abortion, but not when the health of the future baby is concerned," said Chan.

Environmental groups and reproductive rights groups have noted the nexus, as Margie and I wrote in 2002, quoting a health activist.

"The same people -- think of Jesse Helms -- who are taking away reproductive rights are also the people who demand corporate autonomy and a free market for companies that expose people to reproductive toxins without their choice," said Charlotte Brody.

The focus on attacking abortion makes it easy to demonize individual women, and takes attention away from corporate misdeeds. The price of this "culture war" damages all of our futures, wrote Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women:

While President Bush was signing the Unborn Victims of Violence Act into law and declaring his commitment to a culture of life, he was also deregulating coal burning power plants. These plants release significant amounts of mercury into the environment, which is especially poisonous to fetuses and children. The administration uses fetal rights, anti-abortion legislation to distract us from these attacks on family health.

It's encouraging to learn that 86 evangelical leaders launched an environmental initiative. Making sure that men and women who want to have children can have healthy children in a safe environment is a step in the right direction -- it might the sole patch of common ground that prochoice advocates can also support.

The evangelicals interested in the environment should take a look at the Healthy Building Network which is helping to find alternatives to toxic products that harm human health. By seeking environmental health and justice where we work, live and play, (including in the rebuilding of New Orleans), the Healthy Building Network is one of my groups that can offer expertise to those evangelicals concerned about improving our environment.

by cyncooper on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 03:42:36 AM EST

The prolife movement has been profoundly hypocritical on these matters. The fault lines have been there for a long time.

I raised a related issue in Eternal Hostility that I expect is as true today as it was then.

Drawing on an article in Mother Jones magazine, I wrote:  

The 'pro-life' organizations and the broader Christian Right generally oppose, or have no position on, efforts to curb smoking -- even though one medical jounal published a survey of the existing medical literature and found that smoking may be linked to over 100,000 'miscarriages' or 'spontaneous abortions' annually in the U.S. alone.  Anti-abortion activist Pat Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition says he worked for a year to no avail to engage the major anti-abortion groups on the issue.  'It's hypocrisy,' Mahoney correctly declares.  Part of the reason for the schism is that the Republicans generally, as well as key polititians specifically, are also allied with the tobacco industry.  Mahoney observes for example, that 'It's obvious that Sen. Helms is more concerned about contributions from Phillip Morris than standing for the dignity of human life.'  Similarly Don Wildmon's American Family Association attacks corporate conglomerate Phillip Morris for sponsoriing television programs which depict homosexuality in a context of normalcy,but turns a blind eye to how the company presents smoking as a normal and acceptable lifestyle choice.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 05:39:04 AM EST

which might be very fruitful to look into :

The Christian right has been very eager to promote news on studies showing that childbearing reduces incidence of breast cancer among women.

But, the possible implications have not been understood or noticed:

Many persistent environmental pollutants - POP's - are fat soluble, and most of those which are endocrine system disruptors are as well. This tends to be the case because fat-soluble compounds accumulate in human fatty tissues whereas water-soluble compounds are flushed from the human body almost as quickly as they enter.

So, POP's - including endocrine system disruptors - build up in breast fat cells. Consequently, there is a "flushing" effect during breast feeeding by which accumulated POP's are flushed from the breasts of nursing mothers......Into the hungry mouths of their babies.

I first raised this issue - as a blackly satrical online post - back in 2002, based on a news release of a Dutch study purporting to show that :

"prenatal exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins can influence play behaviors that reflect gender differences....Higher prenatal exposure to PCBs was associated with less masculinized play behavior in boys and more masculinized play behavior in girls. In boys as well as in girls, higher prenatal dioxin levels were associated with more feminized play behavior."

Now, some of the methodology used, in that study, to parse "male" and "female" behaviors were somewhat dudious, but at that point the US NIH had already lent its imprimatur to the underlying science :

[ source  
This paper thus supports other studies (8,9) which have reported that lactational transfer represents a major source of PCBs and dioxins to the developing infant. ....

....It is important to determine whether the relatively subtle neurological, hormonal, and immunological effects noted in infants persist in the children as they grow up. While exposure during lactation is quantitatively highly significant, it is important to note that the effects observed in the children correlated with their prenatal, rather than their lactational, exposure.

By raising this as rather black satire, I was hoping to bypass the cognitive blocks that constitute the considerable denial surrounding this grotesque issue - and, to be sure, the greatest impact of endocrine disrupting POP's occurs at the earlier stages of embryonic development, not during breast feeding. But, the symbolic power of the very notion that nursing mothers are imparting poisonous chemicals to their nursing babies is especially potent.

In late 2004, I followed up with another blackly satitical post showcasing an Environmental Working Group  press release on one of the first general assessments of human manmade chemical "body burden" :

"In a study led by Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York...researchers at two major laboratories found an average of 91 industrial compounds, pollutants, and other chemicals in the blood and urine of nine volunteers.... Scientists refer to this contamination as a person's body burden. Of the 167 chemicals found, 76 cause cancer in humans or animals, 94 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 79 cause birth defects or abnormal development. The dangers of exposure to these chemicals in combination has never been studied."

One of the commentators on the forum I made the posts on made this eloquent comment:

I know a woman who works on this issue in California. In the course of a legislative campaign she got pregnant and had a child, and so she took the opportunity to have her breast milk tested. It tested positive for perchlorate. I can't imagine what it would be like to have a child and want to nurse it, but know that your milk contains poison. Even if breastmilk is still better than the alternatives, the knowledge that you are poisoning your child as you are feeding has to be one of the most extreme violations of basic humanity.

posted by alms at 2:23 PM PST on September 8 [ emphasis mine ]

by Bruce Wilson on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 10:02:57 AM EST

The "be fruitful and multiply" position is also undermined by chemical toxins.  Evidence has mounted in the past ten years that endocrine disrupting synthetic chemicals developed in the past fifty years cause sterility, miscarriages, and many other reproductive problems. Studies like the ones you name have amassed since this was articulated in Our Stolen Future in the lmid 1990s. But even then:  

Many plausible impacts can be identified, including sperm count declines, prostrate problems, reproductive problems in women (including miscarriages, tubal pregnancies, endometriosis, and breast cancer), and effects on intelligence, behavior and disease resistence.

In Pandora's Poison Joe Thornton builds on this research and offers some longterm solutions for the reversal of organochloride pollutants that are contributing to

infertility, immune suppression, cancer, and developmental disorders in humans and wildlife

by developing a precautionary principle.  

You would think that the conservatives who advocate personal abstinence could readily understand the need for corporations to abstain from further pollution.

by cyncooper on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 11:13:44 AM EST

From one of the links in your post, concerning an allegedly "Biblical" take on environmental stewardship :

equally as important as the issue of stewardship is the cultural mandate given in Scripture. "Then God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth (Gen. 1:28).'" Don't miss the command to fill the earth and subdue it. God has given us resources to improve our lives, the lives of others, and the cultures in which He has placed us. Yes, we are to be good stewards along the way. But, we are to use the resources God has given us. The taking of natural resources and using them for the benefit of human beings, and yes preserving the beauty of forests and lakes for example at the same time, are all part of subduing the earth for God's glory. Moreover, well documented is the fact that we will never be able to deplete those resources. [ emphasis mine ]

Notice the "magical thinking" . But, some would say, God gave us minds too, and the ability to think in clearly laid out logical trains of thought  rather than by assertions tenuously connected by soaring leaps of ideologically driven faith.

by Bruce Wilson on Sat Feb 11, 2006 at 11:39:39 AM EST

I think there may be additional factors to consider. It seems to me that it is easier to get the rank and file stirred up over a proximate cause - abortion, than it is with something with less obvious causal relations such as coal fired electric plants.

I am not saying that I disagree with the science behind the relationship between pollution and disease, but there are many who do, and for any number of reasons. What I am saying is that it is easier to anger people over a doctor who performs abortions than raise ire over this sequence of events: Coal burns, the plant emits toxins which are absorbed by clouds which rain on the land and the rain contaminates the water supply and you drink the water and it gets into your blood stream and into your milk ducts and then into your baby where it causes a disease.

There are too many steps, too much to think about and at the start of the chain is a faceless corporation not an individual doctor with surgical tools. Its just a thought, but I think that there is something to the simple cause-effect "abortion = dead baby" equation that is a more powerful motivator than the "coal + emissions + clouds + wind + rain + ground water + drink + breast feed = dead baby" equation.

The latter equation also requires science to demonstrate, and as the Discovery Institute's "Wedge" document amply shows "We don't need no steenkin science!" At least not science that requires natural explanations for what we see around us and what diseases we get. For those who reject materialism and seclularism a more valid model of disease is God's punishment for sin. You lost your baby not because the power plant down the road has been spewing murcury at hideous levels for years, but because you don't believe the right way.

by bybelknap on Tue Feb 14, 2006 at 04:38:27 PM EST

But, public awareness may have advanced further than  you give credit.

Here's a thought experiment :

Find any given GOP voter inclined to be antagonistic towards enviromental concerns whom you might find. Ask : do you have children ?

If the answer is yes, reply :

"I have a can of fine lead dust. Can I sprinkle lead dust around the edges of your floors ? It might help control roaches."

If this response is "No way. You're insane ! Lead is poisonous !" well then : you've got a Socratic dialogue, ongoing, that leads towards recognition that low levels of environmental toxicity can be significant.


by Bruce Wilson on Tue Feb 14, 2006 at 11:17:08 PM EST

I've tried this approach...

Parental concern for offspring tends to overule ideology. Ideological platitudes on the relative safety of low lead levels quickly evaporate in the face of real contamination that might impact the development of infants.

Put to the test, environmental denialism loses.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Feb 14, 2006 at 11:28:02 PM EST

I like that approach.  People tend to get pretty upset when you tell them playground equipment is laced with arsenic, too.

Charlotte Brody of Health Care No Harm has done a great job of creating campaigns that relate environmental issues to people.  She created, for example, a mercury thermometer exchange to focus on the damage from mercury in the environment.  And a campaign to get hospitals to stop using PVC tubing, to focus on chloride.  And another with beauty products for focus on pthalathes.  And so on...

I think what makes abortion easier is the demonization of women as bad. Women are easy scapegoats.

by cyncooper on Thu Feb 16, 2006 at 03:02:10 PM EST

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