‘Social emergency’ of low fertility may be driven partly by pesticides, study shows

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In addition to social and cultural trends affecting marriage and birth rates, new findings from a meta-analysis released last month found “evidence of an association” between exposure to some insecticides and “lower sperm concentration in adults” — a sign that commonly-used industrial chemicals may be helping to propel the plunging rates of fertility.

Last year, Pope Francis described the ongoing collapse of fertility in Western countries as a “social emergency” and a sign of “new poverty,” with the Holy Father arguing that the “beauty of a family full of children” is “in danger of becoming a utopia, a dream difficult to realize.”

Fertility in the U.S. and in other developed Western countries has been trending downward for decades.

A review out of the University of Pennsylvania last year noted that the U.S. fertility rate at the time was 1.7 births per female, which is “below the replacement rate of 2.1 that is required for the U.S. population not to shrink without increases in immigration.”

The U.S. Census Bureau said last month that the U.S. population will peak later this century before experiencing a decline by 2100, with that decline driven in part by low fertility rates.

The bureau noted at the time that “immigration is projected to become the largest contributor to population growth,” with low fertility helping to drive a “natural decrease” in population.

The low numbers come even as Americans are increasingly of the view that families should be having more children.

Pesticides possibly driving down male fertility

A major study, prepared by a group of U.S.- and Italy-based researchers and published last month in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, pointed to “contemporary use insecticides” as a possible driver of dropping fertility. 

A “comprehensive investigation” of nearly two dozen studies “found sufficient evidence of an association between higher organophosphate and N-methyl carbamates insecticide exposure and lower sperm concentration in adults,” the researchers said. 

The “strength of evidence warrants reducing exposure to OP and NMC insecticides now to prevent continued male reproductive harm,” the scientists said. 

“To our knowledge, this investigation is the most comprehensive systematic review on this topic to date,” they wrote, arguing that the data indicate a “clear association” between “higher adult OP and NMC insecticide exposure and lower sperm concentration.”

Melissa Perry, the dean of the George Mason University College of Public Health and one of the co-authors of the pesticide study, told the Guardian last month that a reduction in pesticide usage is necessary to ensure that couples are not left incapable of conceiving.

“The message is we need to reduce insecticide exposure in order to ensure men who are planning a family or want to conceive children are able to do that without interference,” she said. 

Are these pesticides ‘immoral’? 

Phil Cerroni, an associate ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, said Catholic ethics dictate both positive and negative moral duties, including that we are bound to “protect our physical and functional integrity” and that we “shouldn’t do anything that directly suppresses or impedes physical or functional integrity.”

“Similarly, we need to protect workers,” he said. “We shouldn’t do anything that directly places them in any harm. I think the question there becomes, with the use of these pesticides, is it a direct harm or indirect harm?”

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Cerroni said the issue is likely one of a “double effect.” 

On the one hand, he said, a “high-pesticide method of agriculture” offers a “basic good for the world’s population” — arguably a more abundant food supply. Yet the potential harm to workers, he said, could outweigh that benefit. 

“The question would be, is there proportionality?” he said. “As a general rule, you can’t achieve a small or moderate good through a means that also causes a great evil.”

“I think the proportionality hinges on whether it’s immediately morally problematic,” he said of the potential effects of pesticides. “If this is the only reasonable means of producing enough food to provide for people’s basic goods or basic needs, then it’s not immoral,” he said, adding that “we still have a moral duty to try to develop processes and techniques that don’t have these bad effects, that aren’t harmful to workers, and that don’t cause harm, either to workers or the people who are eating it,” he added.

Infertility’s effect on marriage ‘profound’

Mary-Rose Verret, who along with her husband, Ryan, founded the marriage renewal and preparation initiative called Witness to Love, said there are “definitely more couples struggling to conceive.” 

“A lot of times it has to do with the fact that people are getting married a lot later,” she said. “A lot of them have never heard of the Church’s teaching on this topic. If you’ve been on contraceptives since 12, and now you’re 27 and you want to get married, you can’t just flip a switch and expect everything to go back to normal.”

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Verret said extended contraception use by women can mask a whole host of fertility problems in addition to those potentially stemming from pesticide use.

“It’s not just pesticides,” she said. “It’s the one-size-fits-all system where contraceptives are the only thing being thrown at anyone with any cycle issues. Instead of looking at hormones, or thyroids, or doing blood work, they’re not getting that treated.”

The Verrets’ ministry has a fertility awareness course for Church leaders, she said. “Unfortunately, right now, there’s not much being done in that area,” she said. 

Ann Koshute, the co-founder of the Catholic infertility ministry Springs in the Desert, said that the effect of infertility on marriage is “profound,” including spiritual and emotional impacts.

“Since we founded Springs in 2019, the CDC stats on infertility have been adjusted upward, from 1 in 8 couples to now 1 in 5,” she said.

“The conversation about infertility and pregnancy loss, thanks at least in part to social media, seems to be coming more into the open, which means that more people are comfortable sharing about their experiences.”

Though medical experts are able to assist Catholics struggling with infertility, Koshute said, “the medical implications of infertility are only the tip of the iceberg.”

“While it is important for couples to strive to be healthy — not only to increase their likelihood of conceiving, but just in general — it is also imperative that the underlying grief, feelings of isolation and abandonment, and spiritual difficulties that result from infertility be addressed,” she said.

“We also believe it’s important to give our clergy the tools they need to accompany couples carrying this cross, so we have developed specific resources to help them,” she added.

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