WORDS BY ALEXANDRIA HERR
PHOTOGRAPH BY KIMBERLY FROST
As the Supreme Court considers overturning Roe v. Wade, threatening abortion access to all, The Frontline sheds light on research showing how fossil fuels and climate change are making pregnancy more risky.
In 2015, Anne Bynum experienced a stillbirth at home in the middle of the night. The next morning, she drove herself to the hospital with the remains of the fetus, hoping to get medical care. Instead, she got charged with two felonies: “concealing a birth” and “abuse of a corpse.” Bynum isn’t alone in experiencing such criminalization. The National Advocates for Pregnant Women has documented over 1,700 arrests and prosecutions related to pregnancy outcomes since the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.
Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that protects pregnant people’s constitutional right to an abortion, now faces the real prospect of being overturned in the Supreme Court, according to a recently leaked draft opinion obtained by POLITICO. Such a ruling would open the door for at least 23 states to legally ban abortions. That would lead to more self-managed abortions—but also to the criminalization of anyone who suffers a negative birth outcome. Meanwhile, a growing body of research is linking climate change and pollution to increased risk of stillbirth, low birth weight, and preterm birth, underscoring how climate change and the erosion of reproductive autonomy are creating a dual crisis for pregnant people across America.
“It is difficult if not impossible for medical professionals to discern the difference between a spontaneous abortion, which is a miscarriage, versus an intended abortion,” said Jill Adams, executive director of If/When/How, a group that provides assistance for people facing abortion-related charges. “If the state is allowed to continue criminalizing people suspected of having ended their own pregnancies, the state will also capture in its wide net people who did not act to end their pregnancies and who are experiencing spontaneous miscarriage.”
Increased abortion access restrictions in a post-Roe landscape will contribute to an atmosphere of surveillance and stigma around abortion, Adams said. As a consequence, medical professionals or neighbors may report to law enforcement anyone they suspect of having an—even if that person actually experienced a spontaneous pregnancy loss.
Already, laws in Texas and Oklahoma engender this kind of surveillance by offering $10,000 rewards to people who successfully sue anyone who “aids or abets” in an abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy (or anyone who even so much as intends to). The laws define “aiding and abetting” expansively—meaning they could technically apply to individuals who donate to an abortion fund. In Louisiana, a fetal personhood bill just voted through a committee would make abortion after the “moment of fertilization” a homicide. The threat of criminalization is “not experienced universally,” Adams said, with Black, Indigenous, and pregnant people of color among the groups most at risk.
This growing anti-abortion atmosphere is particularly alarming in light of emerging science linking pollution and climate change to adverse birth outcomes, including stillbirth (miscarriage after 20 weeks of pregnancy). A 2020 paper review found that a range of adverse birth outcomes, including low birth weight, preterm birth, and stillbirth, were associated with exposure to heat and pollutants, such as ozone and PM2.5—both produced by fossil fuel combustion.
“Our fight is one and the same. Our ideological opponents are, too.”
Like criminalization, the impacts of heat and pollution don’t fall equally on everyone. Nationwide, people of color are 61% more likely to live with air pollution than their white counterparts, often due to the siting of polluting industries near communities of color. Similarly, due to inequitable distribution of green space and the legacy of racist housing practices like redlining, people of color experience more extreme heat: on average, people of color live in census tracts nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit hotter compared to white people. Environmental racism may be contributing to why Black pregnant people were found more at risk in a 2017 study linking extreme heat to stillbirth—and more at risk for adverse birth outcomes overall.
“It makes sense that you would have an increased risk of stillbirth,” said Bruce Bekkar, a gynecologist and climate advocate who led the 2020 review on air pollution and heat exposure impacts on pregnancy.
Tiny pollution particles like PM2.5 can travel so deep into the lungs that they can pass into the bloodstream and make their way to the placenta, which is essentially a massive group of blood vessels. The placenta directly affects the health of the fetus, which receives its nutrients and oxygen from the placenta. Similarly, exposure to extreme heat can shift circulation away from the placenta, also increasing the fetus’s vulnerability.
“It appears very likely with mounting evidence that these associations are real and, unfortunately, will get worse unless we do something about it,” Bekkar said.
The mounting threats of increased heat, air pollution, and climate change at large to pregnancy outcomes and maternal health present a toxic cocktail on their own. Combined with a heightened culture of surveillance and criminalization should we enter a post-Roe America, the present reality for pregnant people is dire.
As we hung up the phone, Adams noted how important it is to draw the connections between climate change, pollution, and reproductive rights—issues that may, on the surface, not seem linked but, in actuality, are deeply intertwined. Curbing pollution and climate change is key—as is protecting the rights of birthing people.
“Our fight is one and the same,” Adams said. “Our ideological opponents are, too.”
May 9, 2022 9:20 am
The article previously included Yessenia Funes as the author of the piece. She was the editor, not the author.