What Health Reform Won’t Heal: The Effect of Environmental Toxins on Sex and Reproduction

Chemicals found in our homes, workplaces, and consumer products are linked to feminization of boys and male sexual problems.

You may read the title of
this blog and think, “what does this have to do with reproductive health and
rights?”  The title may sound more appropriate coming from a self-help book, spiritual advisor
or therapist. However, in my job as a reproductive health and rights advocate, balancing
my attention between the present and the future is a constant challenge. Here’s
how this has played out for me recently:

What May Be:

Without needing to be a
news or political junkie, you may have noticed right now that everyone in
Washington is discussing health care reform and its affects on women’s health, generally, and the right to choose, specifically.  The Stupak-Pitts Amendment in the House bill would prohibit any
health plan participating in the nationwide exchange from offering abortion
coverage. This means virtually all insurance plans would be forced to drop
abortion services even when purchased by private funds. These discussions are
fraught with dismay, heartache and anger because it’s becoming clear that
women’s reproductive health and rights are not guaranteed but rather a
bargaining chip for those on Capitol Hill. And, disappointingly, the Obama
Administration has been quite silent in taking a stand and fighting for access
to abortion services for all women.

Women’s health
organizations have been working very hard to signal our objection to the House
Stupak-Pitts amendment, to defeat the Senate version (the Nelson Amendment) and to change the course of what may be when the Senate and House bills are reconciled, if indeed the two bills go to conference committee.

What Is:

At the same time, this
past month, two new studies have shown that exposure to chemicals found in our
homes, workplaces, and consumer products including plastics, food, sunscreen, and
water bottles, are linked to feminization
of boys
, male
sexual problems
, and erectile dysfunction. This adds to the body of evidence
that has linked toxic chemicals to a host of women’s reproductive health
problems including miscarriage, infertility, early puberty and cancer.

evidence is clear that both women and men are adversely affected by these
chemicals. Yes, it’s scary. Many of my friends, family, and coworkers are
nervous, frustrated, and becoming overwhelmed. We can’t all be amateur chemists
and nor should we be. Isn’t our government supposed to protect the public’s
health and safety? Shouldn’t the chemicals in our consumer products be tested
for safety? It turns out they’re not.

Although this comes as a
surprise to some, others are not shocked. In the thirty-three years since laws
were first passed to test potentially harmful chemicals, only two hundred of
the 80,000 chemicals produced and used in the US have been tested. Current regulations
are so ineffective that they did not allow the government to ban asbestos, a
known carcinogen. Although we can do our best as individuals to stay informed
and shop wisely, we need companies to disclose what’s in their products and for
the government to test all chemicals for safety. We need reform for the health
and safety of ourselves and for our children—and we need it now.

I feel today, as I do many days, that I’m doing a balancing act. I want and
need to fight for what may become a major setback for women’s health and rights
for my generation.
I want to expand access to
health care and eliminate the double standard that treats a woman differently
than a man when it comes to insurance coverage. 
In the same moment, I also want to address what we
now know harms women and men’s
reproductive health: toxic chemicals. The trick is to stay equally attuned to
first ensuring that a woman can get pregnant if she wishes to do so, as well as
ensure t
hat, if a woman gets pregnant, she has access to all
of the healthcare options that are the best for herself and her family.

endgame of the Stupak-Pitts in health reform amendment is our unknown future–at least until decisions are made about whether or not a conference committee will be created or the current Senate bill is taken up directly by the House.

The reality of
toxic substances in our everyday products—and the lack of government oversight
of these toxins—is our known present reality. As an advocate for women’s
reproductive health, my work is both urgent and ongoing.