This morning’s news carried this headline “Atrazine link? Doctor sees ‘ominous trends,’ but no proof”. The story is about the link between an herbicide called atrazine and a birth defect called gastroschisis. Babies conceived in the spring near corn fields sprayed with atrazine are more likely to be born with this defect than babies who are conceived at other times of the year when atrazine is not being sprayed or in places distant from atrazine spraying. This particular birth defect is insidious, the baby’s intestines are on the outside of the body, rather than safely sheltered on the inside of the abdominal wall. Sometimes this can be repaired easily, but most of the time it requires multiple surgeries and a lifetime of disability.
My father, John Raffensperger is a pediatric surgeon. He specialized in gastroschisis and other childhood birth defects and tumors. When I was a child I knew one fact about gastroschisis: babies didn’t have a belly button because the abdominal wall was missing. My Dad would make one when he repaired the problem.
Birth defects like gastroschisis and various tumors in babies made him an environmentalist. When I was growing up he was the chief of pediatric surgery at Cook County Hospital and then surgeon-in-chief at Children’s Memorial, both in Chicago. One day he came home and said that he was seeing an increase in birth defects and childhood tumors. Since he had spent his entire career in Chicago, he had seen all of these childhood ills that had occurred in the Midwest for decades. He had been puzzling over the rising trend. He came to the conclusion that the cause was environmental pollutants. When he mentioned this to me, I asked him why he didn’t do something about it. He said he couldn’t prove the link between environmental contaminants and these ills. But he made environmental issues his personal cause because he knew, even without proof, that this suffering was preventable and it was his moral obligation to act.
We cannot rely on one person’s personal action to prevent this kind of suffering in babies. The problem is too grave and too large. As a society we must choose to produce our food, fiber and fuel without condemning babies to lives of misery and pain. We can and must employ the precautionary principle and take action to prevent suffering in the face of uncertainty. Is ethanol in our gas tanks really more important than a baby’s health?
If we wanted to make father’s day something more than golf outings, gifts of unwanted socks and tacky greeting cards, we would do everything in our power to prevent suffering in their children. To that end, I honor the work of my father and the love of all fathers by devoting my life to creating the conditions for health and to creating the conditions that will reduce the incidence of birth defects and childhood tumors. Every child deserves a belly button that comes from mom, not a scalpel. Happy Father’s Day.