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Climate Change and Abortion: They’re More Connected Than One Might Think

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Posted by: gracemorrison

The Supreme Court Controversial Decisions and Their Impact

            Times are changing: climate change is upon us and the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a ruling which guaranteed Americans the right to an abortion. One may be asking oneself how these two are connected, a fair question to raise. The answer is that in US states where abortion has become a crime, the government can persecute those pregnant people who miscarry under suspicion of a self-managed abortion, but the changing environment, a global disease that some legislators refuse to acknowledge, can contribute to, or even cause, these miscarriages. States’ ability to criminalize abortion already complicates women’s rights and healthcare access, but with the number of miscarriages and stillbirths rising, exacerbated by the EPA’s inability to shift energy production from fossil fuel combustion or to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, the risk of prosecution and the dangers of pregnancy are following. States can prosecute people for how climate change affects them. We should all be terrified by the Supreme Court permitting the destruction of American rights and the global environment. Instead of prioritizing fetuses' rights above the person carrying them, the US government should focus on protecting the rights and health of the actual, existing, cognizant people it governs.

 

            Climate change is happening: the planet has warmed since the Industrial Revolution. Weather conditions are increasing in extremity and frequency. The US heatwaves have become hotter and recurrent, and wildfires are tearing through our forests. Climate change disproportionately affects those subjected to redlining and low-to-moderate income households as these people experience more extreme heat than others; temperatures can be 5 to 20 degrees hotter in the summer for these areas (León-Depass, Sakala, 2021). Environmental disasters disproportionately displace women from their homes as they make up most of the world's poor people. Disasters such as the wildfires in the Western US expose them to air pollution, particulate matter specifically. The source of this climate change, fossil fuel combustion, exposes women to air pollution dangerous to their health with particulate matter and ozone. And the warming climate exacerbates this pollution because it creates conditions that make it easier for ground-level ozone to form. The planet is dying, but instead of seeking to fix it with sustainable practices, the Supreme Court is forcing people to bring children into a world they refuse to save, having gutted the Clean Air Act with the decision of West Virginia v. the EPA. The world around us is crumbling and creating unhealthy conditions for people, specifically pregnant people.

           

            The decision of West Virginia v. the EPA essentially strips the EPA’s power to federally regulate fossil fuels and air pollution. This is extremely problematic for climate change and health, seeing as air pollution affects respiratory health and worsens the greenhouse gasses warming the globe. The Supreme Court applied the “major questions” doctrine in reference to the Clean Power Plan, asserting that the EPA exceeded its authority when enforcing it. The EPA’s usage of the CPP was shifting electricity generation from coal to natural gas and renewable energy to reduce greenhouse gasses, specifically carbon dioxide from coal combustion. However, the Supreme Court determined that this application of the Clean Air Act and the CPP carried too much economic and political significance, therefore triggering the “major questions” doctrine. This decision limits the EPA’s ability to regulate and shift energy production in any grand scale, diminishing the Biden Administration’s ability to manage greenhouse gas emissions.

 

            Again, now one may be asking oneself, what does this issue have to do with pregnancy and abortion? Well, at a time when suspicion of abortion can lead to an arrest, the risk of miscarriages and stillbirths are amplified by the very thing the Supreme Court has gutted the EPA's ability to regulate. One study finds that nitrogen dioxide pollution raises the risk of a miscarriage by 16% (Carrington, 2019), in addition to the fact that nitrogen dioxide reacts with the VOCs also polluting the air to create ozone. A study also determined that areas with a greater concentration of pollution such as sulfur dioxide, ozone, carbon monoxide, and especially particulate matter create a higher risk of miscarrying (Christensen, 2019). Particulate matter pollution, which rises with wildfires, was found to put a pregnancy at risk across many studies, seeing as once entering the bloodstream, the particulate matter can compromise the fetus' ability to receive nutrients and oxygen (Herr, 2022). Even short-term exposure to air pollution can create an increased risk of miscarriage, so while the effects are considerably worse for those living in areas with high levels of pollution, all pregnancies with exposure to these pollutants are at risk. Further research finds that pregnant people exposed to pollution can experience a breach of such chemicals into the placenta and the fetus, raising the risk of miscarriage or future health problems if the child is born (Christensen, 2019). Other research finds that perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) types, which manufacturers commonly use, when found at higher levels in pregnant people, increase their chance of miscarriage by 80% to 120% (Greenwood, 2020). One study found that exposure to air pollution in the third trimester of pregnancy raised the risk of stillbirth by 42% and preterm birth in asthmatic mothers by 52% (Flavelle, 2020). Exposure to air pollution is dangerous in many ways, the list of which seems to be growing with criminal charges as an addition. Another type of substance, synthetic chemicals called phthalates used in flooring, food packaging, cosmetics, and other common products, can cause harm to a pregnancy. Di-Ethylhexyl phthalate, a chemical used in manufacturing and plastic for medical equipment, building materials, blinds, etc., can contaminate air, water, food, and other substances and when found in pregnant individuals, makes a miscarriage 60% more likely. Air pollution and exposure to these chemicals worsens everyone’s health, specifically pregnant people, increasing the chances of losing a pregnancy.

 

However, it isn’t just air pollution contributing to pregnancy loss, but also the long-term effects of these emissions. Air pollution ultimately creates a greenhouse effect, warming the planet. "Increases in temperature, rainfall, and humidity create favorable conditions for vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever, and Zika virus, which can cause miscarriages, premature birth, and anemia among pregnant women" (Carbó, 2022). The rising temperatures are also dangerous for pregnancy because in a study, "the risk of early birth increased 11.6% with every 5.6°C increase" (Holden, 2021), and scientists expect the global temperature to continue to rise. Heatwaves, which are becoming more extreme and more frequent in the US, can cause babies to have low birth weight, creating lasting health effects on the child; additionally, with vulnerability to air pollution, these environmental factors can cause preterm birth and account for 20% of deaths in newborns (C-Change, 2021). In California, a study found that every additional 10° Fahrenheit raises the risk for preterm birth by 8% (Sommer, 2021). Exposure to excessive heat has worse effects on pregnant people because pregnancy already raises body temperature and affects thermoregulation. This vulnerability can lead to dehydration, kidney failure, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke and can also cause lower birth weight, preterm birth, and higher infant mortality (US EPA, 2022). Extreme heat is dangerous for pregnancy because it can shift circulation away from the placenta, hindering the fetus’ development. Certain research has highlighted that exposure to extreme heat during weeks fifteen to twenty-one of pregnancy creates a higher risk of delivery at thirty-four to thirty-six weeks by 18% and at thirty-seven to thirty-nine weeks by 4%; pregnant people experiencing exposure to extreme heat during weeks eight to fourteen increased the risk of delivery at thirty-seven to thirty-eight weeks by 4%. Overall, exposure to extreme heat during pregnancy is associated with increased risk of delivery at thirty-four weeks and thirty-six to thirty-eight weeks by 6-21% (NIH, 2016). There is also evidence that exposure to temperatures over 87° Fahrenheit reduces pregnancy by five days per day of exposure; extreme heat, in general, increases the risk of hospitalization by 5% each day in the second trimester and 3% each day in the third trimester (León-Depass, Sakala, 2021). Extreme weather caused by climate change is also not exclusive to heatwaves but also extreme cold, which creates a 20% increased risk of delivering before thirty-four weeks of pregnancy, a 9% increased risk of delivering during thirty-four to thirty-six weeks of pregnancy, and a 3% increased risk of delivering in weeks thirty-seven to thirty-eight (NIH, 2016). Climate change and unsustainable practices harm people and pregnancies, but the Supreme Court's decision allows states to force people to maintain these pregnancies while destroying the Clean Air Act, an act which could help protect these pregnancies for those who want them.

 

            But stillbirths and miscarriages are different from an abortion, so how is this relevant? People who experience these losses will be fine, right? Wrong. Even with Roe v. Wade in place, states have prosecuted pregnant people for the loss of their pregnancies, even unintentional losses. Miscarriages happen all the time, but now, if a state bans abortion and people miscarry or experience a stillbirth, these people's freedom could be at risk. Certain states have laws in place to condemn people for losing a pregnancy, finding legal loopholes to charge these people for occurrences out of their control. These states were able to manipulate the law, prosecuting these people through other statutes such as those surrounding concealment of a dead body or abuse of a corpse when people buried the fetal remains of a lost pregnancy, child neglect in the case of a stillbirth, and other outrageous abuses of the law to charge and convict people with the loss of their pregnancy. According to Tolentino (2022), "Search histories, browsing histories, text messages, location data, payment data, information from period-tracking apps—prosecutors can examine all of it if they believe that the loss of a pregnancy may have been deliberate." This statement may seem outlandish, but there are numerous examples of this persecution of a miscarriage or stillbirth. Miscarriage is the loss of a pregnancy before twenty weeks, a result that occurs in 10% of pregnancies (Huff, 2022); stillbirth is the loss of a pregnancy after twenty weeks, a result that occurs in 1% of pregnancies or twenty-four thousand times per year in the US (Haynes, 2020). One woman, Latice Fischer, a black mother already providing for three children on a salary of $11 an hour, experienced a stillbirth. Despite no evidence of her taking an abortion pill, Mississippi courts convicted her of murder in the second degree and held her on a $100,000 bond for several weeks based on her search history and her admission that she did not want and could not afford another child (Tolentino, 2022).

 

Another woman, Michelle Roberts, had a stillbirth at home and buried the fetal remains; the police found these remains from a family member's tip, and Virginia prosecutors charged her with "producing a miscarriage" (Doyle, 2017). Yet another case, that of Katherine Dellis, took place when Dellis sought medical care after having a stillbirth at home and police arrested her. Even though the fetus died in the womb, the state sentenced Dellis to 5 months in prison for concealing a dead body (Haynes, 2020). Another example of this persecution was Keysheonna Reed's case where after miscarrying twins at twenty-four weeks, she buried the fetal remains. The police found the remains, and she turned herself in, but even though the fetuses died in the womb and no illegal substances were found, the authorities charged Reed with abuse of a corpse and up to ten years in prison (Haynes, 2020). These cases exemplify how states have created legal loopholes around Roe v. Wade when it was still in place, now these cases will worsen without the restrictions which were already inadequately protecting the rights of pregnant people.

 

An even more ridiculous case is that of Marshae Jones. A person shot Jones while she was pregnant, and she lost the five-month-old fetus. While the state didn't condemn her shooter with claims of self-defense, they charged Jones for her own injuries, for taking part in a fight while pregnant; she faced up to twenty years in prison and the state ultimately indicted her for the death of the fetus (Haynes, 2020). Purvi Patel is another outrageous example of this persecution of those who miscarry. After going to the ER for bleeding, Patel experienced a stillbirth at twenty-three or twenty-four weeks of pregnancy; police then arrested her for feticide and neglect of a dependent. Despite a lack of evidence, claims that the fetus was alive when born and Patel's negligence led to its death and claims that she took abortion pills, even though investigators found no trace of the substance in her body, led to her sentence of twenty years in prison for feticide (Haynes, 2020). These convictions represent the danger of states ability to destroy the freedom of pregnant people for losses out of their control.

 

In Oklahoma, there have been several cases "in which women who used drugs have been charged with manslaughter for miscarrying well before the point of viability" (Tolentino, 2022). Fetuses have more rights than pregnant people, with Bei Bei Shuai spending a year in prison until the court dropped the charges for feticide after an unsuccessful suicide attempt resulted in the death of the fetus (Haynes, 2020). Furthermore, "in 2014, Lynn M. Paltrow and Jeanne Flavin claimed to have identified over 380 cases where women faced criminal charges for miscarrying –with the charges ranging from "attempted fetal homicide" for falling down the stairs to "second-degree murder" for a spontaneous miscarriage in the first trimester" (Doyle, 2017). Now, medical professionals can deny pregnant people treatment for sepsis when experiencing a miscarriage because the fetus' heart is still beating (Tolentino, 2022). All these cases took place while Roe v. Wade was still in place and now that the Supreme Court has overturned it, governments can continue persecuting pregnant people, even if the pregnancy loss was unintentional.

 

            The Supreme Court's decision forces medical professionals not to provide proper medical care to people losing their pregnancies out of fear of legal retribution, a horrifying reality. People can also be prosecuted for losing their pregnancies, even unintentionally, further complicating medical care for pregnant people. Miscarriages can lead to infections and harm the pregnant person, but now these people are terrified to go to the emergency room. People are being turned away by medical professionals for non-viable pregnancies because the fetus' heart is still beating. Even if the fetus has already died in the womb, certain state laws force pregnant people to carry to term. States are already banning abortions in cases where it would save the pregnant person's life, three states specifically. Doctors won't prescribe medications to flush out the rest of the placenta because it is the same medication used for an abortion, forcing them to risk charges from the state. Medical professionals must be able to treat their patients properly or, if a pregnancy is unwanted, provide safe resources. The persecution of pregnant people's rights doesn't just affect those individuals who would go through with getting an abortion but also those who lose their pregnancy, despite wanting it.

 

            This reality becomes even more of a risk with the Supreme Court gutting the Clean Air Act as research points to air pollution and extreme weather endangering pregnancies and the people who carry them. The Supreme Court threatens us all by allowing polluters to continue endangering our health and allowing states to prosecute people for the resulting health problems. These decisions put us all in danger, especially people who can become pregnant. Abortion bans raise the likelihood of pregnancy-related deaths considerably, destroying access to proper medical care and ruining the lives and safety of the existing people whose rights the Supreme Court serves to protect. Fetuses now have more rights than those who carry them, putting anyone who becomes pregnant at serious risk of forced pregnancy, jail time, or even death. If this decision were about life, it would force state governments to allow exceptions to abortion bans to save the pregnant person's life. While no law should force people to keep an unwanted pregnancy, even those people who are pro-life face legal and medical danger if they miscarry, forced to act as sacrifices to their cause. No matter one's position on Roe v. Wade, no one should be subjected to that, especially without protection from the health risks caused by climate change. These risks will continue to grow worse with the changing climate, more extreme and frequent, and the environment is just one factor that can harm a pregnancy.

 

            The Supreme Court’s recent decision on Roe v. Wade further complicates an already complex women’s rights issue, as miscarriage and stillbirths become more common and more frequent due to extreme weather and air pollution. The Supreme Court is obliterating American rights to healthcare and a healthy environment. This decision to overturn Roe v. Wade eliminates millions of Americans' access to healthcare and criminalizes medical professionals attempting to make proper healthcare decisions for their patients. Despite varying positions on abortion and Roe v. Wade, most reasonable people can agree that the health of the mother is important. For those people who want to have a child, losing a pregnancy is devastating, but now there is a danger of criminal charges.  The dangers of pregnancy are already great, but with the Supreme Court destroying the Clean Air Act, the risks will only increase as climate change and pollution hurt people's health across the globe and destroy the freedom of Americans who are or could become pregnant. The Supreme Court's decision essentially forces people to bring children into a deteriorating world, one which the EPA is losing its power to fix; these children don't have a future ahead of them. The government should focus on building a sustainable world for the actual fully formed people they serve to govern and protect.

 

References:

          [cover image] https://www.flickr.com/photos/bootbearwdc/37621686/in/photostream/

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