Catherine ThomassonCatherine Thomasson
The anti-war cliché is that war is not healthy for children or other living things. So as a new physician in the 1980s planning a career in public health, it seemed logical to me to try to help people suffering from the health damages of armed conflict in Central America.

[They] were among the many millions worldwide who lack access to modern sexual and reproductive health care and contraceptives, which meant that in addition to the physical disruptions and terrors of wartime, they lacked control over yet another area of their lives.
I was inspired in part by the film Witness to War, about Dr. Charlie Clements of Physicians for Human Rights and his work in El Salvador, and by the death of Ben Linder in Nicaragua, a friend of mine from Oregon. Ben was an engineer working on a small hydroelectric project when he was killed by U.S.-backed Contra rebels, but the children in his village mainly knew him as a lovable clown.

The women in Nicaragua showed me how life continues on many levels even during wartime. Their strength and courage moved me deeply. They welcomed our group of visiting doctors as individuals and shared their losses without blaming us, even though the U.S. government was supporting a violent insurgency against them.

The immediate trauma of war was stunning – devastating to body and mind and every part of the environment. And the survivors, especially the women, knew what the future would bring: food shortages, blasted homes and roads and infrastructure, with little or no choice about whether to bring more children into that difficult world. Most were among the many millions worldwide who lack access to modern sexual and reproductive health care and contraceptives, which meant that in addition to the physical disruptions and terrors of wartime, they lacked control over yet another area of their lives.

Since then I have worked to defended reproductive health against other threats that are out of our individual control but are less visible than warfare. Every day, for example, we suffer chemical trespass from toxins that pervade the environment and are all but universal in our bodies. The floods and droughts and super-storms of global climate change pose enormous threats to human health, often every bit as violent as gunfire. And we are only beginning to grasp the layers of repercussions and complex interconnections among these facts of modern life.

Women's reproductive health is at additional risk from some of the chemicals like BPA found in plastics used to make food containers. Problems with reproduction, hormone imbalance and cancers can result from these chemicals.

At Physicians for Social Responsibility, we are educating, training and empowering health professionals to speak out on these risks and find ways to reduce them. Pregnant women, for example, need to know that they and their fetuses will be affected more than anyone else by ozone levels, air pollution and pesticide residues in their surroundings, and how to minimize them if possible.

It is past time to demand that our policymakers rewrite the Toxic Substances Control Act, which has been completely ineffective in providing the Environmental Protection Agency power to protect people from harmful chemicals in the U.S.. It needs to be strengthened and refocused on preventing harm to pregnant women and babies. When it passed in 1976, it exempted all 62,000 known chemicals then in use. It fails to consider more than 35 years of tests and research since its passage; and it makes removing unsafe chemicals from the market virtually impossible.

What has gotten into us? We don't really know. And until we take action on these critical issues, we won't be able to find out. Reducing toxic substances and emissions will make us healthier and tackle climate change at the same time, a win-win for us and for our grandchildren. We must learn how to defend ourselves because this is a war for women's sexual and reproductive health, one our world cannot afford to lose.

Catherine Thomasson, MD is an internal medicine physician and Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the largest organization that educates and mobilizes health professionals on the most dire health threats from global environmental concerns to weapons of war.