WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
As abortion access grows more limited in the U.S., The Frontline looks at the crisis this creates for people who need reproductive health care during or after extreme weather events.
Content warning: This story includes mentions of sexual assault and violence.
Across the globe, we’re witnessing a state of climate emergency. Just last week, temperatures in Europe hit historic highs. In the U.S., extreme heat is driving southwestern wildfires. Elsewhere this summer, heavy rain has caused flooding—in New York, the Gulf Coast, and even Yellowstone National Park. It’s not just the U.S., either: China and Australia have been dealing with their own spate of disastrous intense rains.
As I witness this all unfold, I can’t help but wonder about all the pregnant people seeking an abortion. Especially here in the U.S. where the right to safe abortion has been federally killed. Is abortion still an option? Are clinics open? And what about outside of the U.S.? After all, 24 countries explicitly prohibit abortion, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. Another 72 operate much like the U.S. where they restrict abortion by how far along the fetus is.
Welcome to The Frontline, where reproductive justice is climate justice. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. My reporting has made clear that extreme weather severely impacts a person’s ability to access abortion. It also reminded me that extreme weather increases the need for abortions as gender-based violence often follows these disasters.
During the 2019 election cycle, abortion doula Lucy Hartman found herself a new ally: the Virginia League of Conservation Voters (LCV), a local chapter of the national group. As organizing director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, Hartman is responsible for organizing door-knocking for endorsed candidates. As it turned out, the same politicians who support reproductive rights also believe in climate action, so she partnered with the organization to recruit volunteers.
That’s when the intersection of climate and reproductive justice first became clear to Hartman. More recently, in May, when POLITICO leaked the draft opinion on the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, Hartman saw the power of solidarity yet again when she organized a rally with the Virginia Reproductive Equity Alliance, and the LCV’s political action committee donated boxed water—a better alternative to bottled water. Hartman didn’t want to purchase single-use plastics, especially as plastics are increasingly being linked to reproductive issues.
Now, she can’t turn away from how climate change and reproductive rights connect.
“If reproductive justice is the right to have children, to not have children,” she said, “and if you do have children, to raise them in a healthy environment, it makes sense to me to work together toward climate justice because if folks have decided to grow their families, they’re naturally going to want to be able to raise their families in a healthy environment.”
However, a healthy environment is just the tip of the iceberg. Climate change is projected to make hurricanes and wildfires more intense. These disasters complicate access to abortion as power is lost, roads get blocked or flooded, leaving staff unable to reach clinics and forcing them to shut down. Then, there are the pregnant people who must spend whatever resources they might’ve used toward abortion on evacuation and recovery. Living through disaster ain’t cheap; neither is abortion. An average family can spend thousands preparing for a hurricane evacuation. An abortion can cost up to $750, but the price (and risk) rises the longer someone is pregnant.
“Pregnancy is on a clock. Abortion is on a clock.”
The National Network of Abortion Funds, which is made up of nearly 100 funds across the U.S. and a few internationally, has seen a pattern where abortion needs increase after an extreme weather event, said Debasri Ghosh, the network’s managing director. This was the case even before the recent loss of Roe v. Wade. Ghosh recalled how the network has had to navigate such complications in states like Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, which are entering the thick of hurricane season. The urgency has only escalated now that these states have either shut down clinics or are trying to.
Since July, at least Florida, Mississippi, and Texas have formally banned abortions, and many other states (like Louisiana) are attempting to do so. Still, advocates have taken the fight to the courts where the bans remain in limbo. In Kansas, voters will decide in August if the state will maintain a constitutional right to abortion. These restrictions are forcing more people to travel to access abortions, which makes the costs go up even more.
“The common theme is that people have even more barriers receiving this really time-sensitive care,” Ghosh said. “Pregnancy is on a clock. Abortion is on a clock.”
A 2020 case study published in the journal Health Care Women Int. documented Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath in Texas in 2017 by studying eight people who sought abortions when the storm hit. The hurricane forced several abortion clinics to close, delaying scheduled abortions. The research made clear to lead author Ophra Leyser-Whalen, an associate sociology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, how structural inequalities around income and employment exacerbate these situations.
“It’s just a disaster within a disaster within a disaster,” she said.
Every single person in the study had been displaced by the hurricane and needed financial assistance for their abortion. One woman had planned to continue with the pregnancy until the hurricane uprooted her life. Another was seeking an abortion after being raped in a disaster shelter. A third woman was in a dangerous situation regarding her abusive partner.
“Being exposed to more people exposes you and potentially your children and your family members to sexual abuse,” Leyser-Whalen said. “I don’t think disaster planners necessarily think about that when they think about housing people.”
This is the reality many women and people who can get pregnant face. It’s another example of why climate change is a threat multiplier, especially with respect to safe health care.
However, preventing such heartbreaking outcomes will require systemic change. Leyser-Whalen points to several flaws in how the U.S. operates: there’s no universal health care, no free or cheap child care, and no national paid family leave policy. “All the structures are working against people to have a comfortable living with a family,” she said.
Disaster recovery centers and community shelters should, at a bare minimum, have information available on how to access health care, especially reproductive care, said Dr. Samantha Montano, a self-described disasterologist and assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Nurses and medical professionals who volunteer at these places should have proper training on how people can access a legal abortion. The reality is, however, that the government is unlikely to offer much help here. After disaster strikes, mutual aid networks (like what Ghosh does) are the ones that step up.
“If I were somebody who were working for one of those groups, I would definitely have a plan in place for how we are going to continue operations during any kind of disaster that may happen, be communicating and working with the other disaster-related nonprofits that exist in your community, potentially reaching out to your local emergency managers, and finding out how you’re going to make your services known to the people who need it,” Montano said.
This crisis isn’t limited to only wildfires and hurricanes in the U.S., either. In 2020, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which primarily focuses on endangered species, published a study that documented how the loss of nature can lead to increased gender-based violence globally. Researchers documented fishermen in eastern and southern Africa who wouldn’t sell to a woman unless she engaged in sex with them. In South America, they found sex trafficking happening near illegal mining operations. And they saw how women activists face immense threats when they speak out, including sexual assault. These types of tragedies can lead to pregnancy and, thus, the need for abortion.
“It’s really time to lock arms with aligned movements, like the climate justice movement, the economic justice movement, the racial justice movement.”
Reproductive rights group Ipas works in countries like Mozambique and Malawi where floods are becoming more frequent. After the waters recede, food and clean water is the priority—but not reproductive health care. “By the time people start mobilizing that, it can potentially be very, very late,” said Pansi Katenga, the organization’s development director.
She wants to see health care services offered alongside food and water needs. After all, pregnant people are at higher risk of miscarriages as they face malnutrition and lose access to necessary medicine. In some instances, abortion is medically necessary. Unsafe abortion is a contributor to maternal mortality in Africa.
Now that the U.S. is becoming more restrictive around reproductive rights, Katenga worries how this will impact the countries in the Global South where Ipas works. The U.S. is a major influence—through donations but also through messaging. “I do anticipate that we will face even more resistance,” Katenga said. “We will see greater opposition because of the influence that the U.S. has.”
All this emphasizes the need for climate and reproductive health advocates to come together. Just as Hartman in Virginia sees the connection between the two, so does Ghosh at the National Network of Abortion Funds. It’s not lost on her that the same week the Supreme Court shot down Roe v. Wade, it also limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate polluters through West Virginia v. EPA.
“It’s really time to lock arms with aligned movements, like the climate justice movement, the economic justice movement, the racial justice movement,” Ghosh said, “to make sure that we can protect people’s dignity and bodily autonomy and safety across all axes.”