“We’ll fight you all the way,” he said. That was the top spokesperson for a major “pro-family” organization.
He and I were having breakfast at the Willard Hotel, just across the street from the White House. I’d asked him to meet to discuss ways in which we might work together on a particular issue. It didn’t go well.
“So, you’re telling me that you don’t think your constituency would be interested?” I asked. “Well, I can assure you that we aren’t going to consider this a ‘sanctity of life’ issue,” was his response.
Amazing. Especially given the topic under discussion.
We were talking about the mercury poisoning of unborn children in America.
Studies show that 600,000 children, one out of six born annually, have been exposed to mercury levels that could cause brain damage. Pregnant women and toddlers are routinely advised to avoid fish with potentially high mercury content like swordfish, shark, tilefish, and even tuna steaks. These large fish eat little fish, that eat the algae, that may be contaminated by mercury pollution, which comes mostly from U.S. coal-burning power plants.
And here was my colleague proposing that this wasn’t a “sanctity of life” issue!
Once I became aware of the impacts of mercury on the unborn it prompted alarms to go off in my head, but it especially aroused the concern of Virginia, the mother of our two boys. The younger of the two has an auditory processing problem and has needed special schooling.
Am I saying that the cause of his disability was mercury poisoning? No, but it could have been. No one can say for sure.
My growing apprehension about the relationship between the environment and personal health led me to ask Rev. Jim Ball, the President of the Evangelical Environmental Network, to join me at the 2005 national “Right to Life” march, held annually in the nation’s capital.
I said, “Jim, would you carry a banner with me, say, entitled, ‘Stop Mercury Poisoning of the Unborn’? We’ll carry it among the usual abortion protestors and see what happens.’”
We did just that, which led to a national news story in The Washington Post entitled “The Greening of the Evangelicals.” And how were we viewed?
Well, most marchers were completely unaware of the connection between mercury and the unborn, but they learn quickly. Thus, on that January day, we helped start a movement that is making evangelicals the “go-to” religious group in challenging politics-as-usual on climate change, habitat destruction, species extinction, and mercury pollution.
What is most tragic about mercury poisoning of the unborn is that, unlike climate change, it is an easily solvable problem. There is available technology, scrubbers for coal-burning utility plants that can virtually eliminate mercury emissions, that is, if the public would demand that their government act to mandate those scrubbers.
Many people assume this problem has no impact on them. But I will never forget a focus group conducted by Ellison Research in Richmond, Virginia. We watched as a grandmother in her sixties, a lay-preacher, said, “You mean to tell me that at least two of my sixteen grandchildren could have been exposed to mercury? Well, we don’t have any utility plants located here.”
Reaching over, a middle-aged man put his hand on hers and said, “Lady, we not only do have a coal-burning utility plant nearby, I work for it.” Both agreed, after further discussion, to work together to end this toxic pollution.
Is mercury poisoning a sanctity-of-life issue? Of course -- and no amount of Herod-like “washing one’s hands” of liability will change that.
Together, evangelical Christians and atheists, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, can stop this injustice against our children. All that’s necessary is that we hold our politicians and government officials, including the President, accountable for this form of discrimination against our youngest citizens.
It’s the least we can do for “the least of these,” what the Bible calls our innocent babies. It’s not too much to ask.
Richard Cizik is the Vice President for Governmental Affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals. He regularly lobbies the White House and Congress, and is outspoken on biblically-based environmentalism called “creation care.”
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© 2007 Blue Ridge Press