Baseball, Steroids, the Pill and Russian Roulette

With the official start of the 2012 baseball season, unfortunately, a new steroid controversy has erupted, this time involving the Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun.

Braun, the reigning National League MVP, tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in October 2011 and was suspended for 50 games. He subsequently appealed the ruling, and, in February 2012, it was overturned on a technicality.

While those of us who are baseball fans would no doubt rather simply focus on all of the excitement and expectation of the season, perhaps it’s worth taking some time to reflect on the kind of risk/reward analysis that leads some of us to decide to take these hormones in the first place.

Anabolic steroids pose many documented, significant risks to one’s life and health. They cause changes in the way the brain functions — possibly even the structure of the brain itself. They may cause a weakening of the immune system, high blood pressure, increased cholesterol, increased aggression (so-called “roid rage”), heart enlargement, breast enlargement (in men), breast reduction (in women), heart attack, stroke, sexual dysfunction, renal failure and possibly liver cancer.

And yet, in spite of all these serious risks, at least a few of us are still willing to take anabolic steroids.

In these cases, it seems that the natural human instinct for self-preservation is being overwhelmed by the promise or “reward” of potential wealth and fame. Perhaps the risk/reward analysis is also skewed for these individuals because the potential reward is more immediate and concrete, while the risks are perceived to be in the distant future and vague.

However, regardless of the reason, that analysis just doesn’t compute for the vast majority of us. When it comes to anabolic steroids, we see this kind of usage as playing Russian roulette.

Interestingly, there is another current controversy involving a pharmaceutical that may, at first blush, seem entirely different: the birth-control pill.

But, in fact, anabolic steroids and the pill share a great deal in common.

Both are “steroids.” Anabolic steroids are a synthetic version of the male sex hormone testosterone. The pill is a synthetic version of the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone.

Both involve significant risks to life and health. The pill frequently causes decreased libido, even well after a woman stops using it, and can cause mood changes, high blood pressure, blood clots, stroke, heart disease and heart attacks. 

According to a study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, it may have adverse “long-term, sexual, metabolic and mental-health consequences.” It is listed as a “Group 1 carcinogen,” alongside asbestos, tobacco and formaldehyde by the World Health Organization and the American Cancer Society.

It is also associated with a significantly increased risk of a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer called “triple negative,” increased rates of breast cancer in general and increased rates of liver and cervical cancer.

According to a study cited in Scientific American, “birth-control pills have structural effects on regions of the brain that govern higher-order cognitive activities” and other effects that are “likely to be dramatic.” Other studies cited in Scientific American have also indicated that the pill seems to adversely affect a woman’s ability to choose the most biologically and emotionally compatible mate.

It seems reasonable to suspect that a similar result would be obtained by a study done on the effect of anabolic steroids on a man’s ability to choose the most compatible mate.

There are still other interesting similarities between anabolic steroids and the pill.

Both anabolic steroids and the pill can be taken for legitimate medicinal reasons, such as helping to alleviate hormonal imbalances. But both are also being used for purposes that are not truly medicinal; reasons that have little or nothing to do with alleviating or curing disease. Both are being used to force the human body to do something it was not designed to do.

Certainly, one difference is that the “reward” for using anabolic steroids is fame and fortune. While, in the case of the pill, the supposed “reward” is not having a baby.

But there is at least one particularly interesting and important difference between steroids and the pill: our reaction to them as a society.

In regard to anabolic steroids, we have pretty much unanimously come to the conclusion that steps should be taken to keep individuals from using them in ways that are not truly medicinal, ways that force the body to do things it wasn’t designed to do. But, in the case of the pill, we’ve gone in exactly the opposite direction. 

As a society, we try to ensure that anyone can easily obtain these pills and even have them paid for by health insurance. Many would like them available “over the counter.” It has gotten to the point that our president is even mandating that health insurance must cover the pill, free of charge, to the user and is arguably willing to violate the First Amendment in the process.

So, why do we have such polar-opposite views of these two types of steroids as a society?

The answer seems plain: In the case of anabolic steroids, relatively few of us use them. As a result, we have no collective emotional investment in them and therefore our judgment isn’t impaired when making the risk/reward analysis. In addition, the media has actively informed us of the dangers related to anabolic steroid use. And the medical community has done its job in this regard as well.

Conversely, in the case of the pill, millions of us are using it or are married to someone who is using it. As a result, we have a collective emotional investment in the pill that makes it more difficult to judge the evidence clearly and objectively. 

And in stark contrast to anabolic steroids, the media has done little to inform us of the dangers related to use of the pill. In fact, even when it does warn us, it seems to bend over backwards to reassure us that we should continue to use the pill, regardless.

Remarkably, one recent study found that most of us are almost completely unaware of these dangers. Only 40% of pill users were informed by their doctor about the risk of blood clots and stroke, and a mere 19% were informed about the increased risk of breast cancer.

In the end, regardless of whether one assumes the risks associated with either of these types of steroids with full knowledge or out of complete ignorance, one is still ultimately playing the same game of Russian roulette. And that kind of game is far too serious to play with one’s life and health without even knowing the rules or the risks.

At the very least, don’t we owe it to ourselves and to our families to educate ourselves about such substances before putting them into our bodies?

Michael Forrest is a Catholic speaker, apologist and catechist

who writes from Massachusetts.

His articles have appeared in several Catholic periodicals.