Although Mississippi voters defeated an amendment last year that would have defined life as “beginning at conception,” efforts to end or limit abortion continue. Earlier this year the state legislature passed and Gov. Phil Bryant signed a law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital and to be board-certified in obstetrics and gynecology. Sociological and psychological data on abortion are commonplace, as are moral and political arguments over the right to life and freedom of choice. But the environmental factors that adversely affect the health of women and developing children garner little attention, even though these factors offer areas of possible agreement between the pro-life and pro-choice camps.
A recent study at the University of California, San Francisco revealed that women in the United States had at least 43 chemicals in their bloodstreams, including cancer-causing agents like PCBs, flame retardants, pesticides and phthalates. Due to a biological process called “biomagnification,” by which chemicals in one organism move up in greater concentrations into the next connected organism, it is probable that when any of these women become pregnant, their fetus and newborn will be subject to these contaminants in greater concentrations.
This result appears in the findings of an extensive study of women and children in the Arctic regions. In her book Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic (2005), Marla Cone, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, followed the trails of contaminants banned in the 1960s and 70s; she discovered their ubiquitous presence among peoples in the Arctic Circle. Far from disappearing, PCBs, DDT and flame-retardants migrate. Winds carry the contaminants east then north to the Arctic Circle through a process in which they rise in warmer temperatures and fall in cold weather. In the Arctic some 152,000 pounds of these toxins arrive yearly in the air, snow, ice or fog and settle in soil, seawater and ocean sediment. Through biomagnification the women who feed on seals, walruses or bears as their main source of nutrition carry concentrated toxins in their blood and breast milk.
In Greenland, Ms. Cone reports, Inuit women carry within their bodies contaminants classified as hazardous waste and more mercury and PCBs than women anywhere else on earth. The Inuit infants are more susceptible to infectious diseases and damage to their developing brains. The alternatives for the women of the Arctic are stark: they have been advised to stop eating whale meat and blubber, their principal dietary food, and to purchase infant formula imported from abroad, which is expensive for them.
“The Arctic’s indigenous peoples have become the industrialized world’s lab rats, the involuntary subjects of an accidental human experiment that reveals what happens when a boundless brew of chemicals builds up in an environment,” writes Ms. Cone. She calls this situation a “moral injustice.”
Dire Situation at Home
In the continental United States, the situation for pregnant women and those who nurse their newborns is also dire. Although the Environmental Protection Agency has issued guidelines and regulations for many of the most toxic chemicals, there are some 80,000 registered for use. Of these, fewer than 10 percent have been tested, and many are known carcinogens. In addition, waste dumps and facilities that emit harsh chemicals are often located in poor communities and primarily among people of color. The result is toxic damage.
Native American and Hispanic women are especially at risk. Farmworkers exposed to toxins in pesticides have rates of infant and maternal mortality much higher than the national average. From exposure to uranium and other elements from the mining process, Navajos of the Southwest suffer above-average rates of lung cancer, kidney damage and bone disease. Exposure is also the suspected cause of birth defects among their children.
Newborns among Hispanics in Brownsville and Laredo, Tex., have shown rates of anencephaly, a rare birth defect involving a fetus’s failure to develop a brain or skull, three times that of the national average. Possible culprits are pollutants from agricultural and industrial sites along the border with Mexico, particularly from maquiladores, factories that produce items for import to the United States and other countries.
Cancer Alley, an area along the Mississippi River bordering Louisiana, stretches 85 miles from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. It is home to over 160 industrial waste sites, sanitary landfills, chemical factories, waste incinerators and other hazardous facilities, all of which affect the African-American communities nestled along the river, writes Beverly Wright in “Living and Dying in ‘Cancer Alley,’” a case study in The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution (2005). In 2002, 10 districts along the Mississippi chemical corridor reported emitting over 169 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, land and water, according to Louisiana’s Toxic Release Inventory. The results include increases in a variety of diseases among newborns including eye, skin and respiratory problems, along with birth defects.
All of these cases, and many more throughout the world, provide vivid examples of environmental racism: the placement of waste disposal facilities, chemical factories with their toxic waste and even coal plants among communities largely made up of the poor and people of color. Faced with the everyday struggle to provide for themselves and their families, these people often lack the power and representation to assert their right to a healthy environment, inherent in the concept of full human dignity and the common good.
In two encyclicals, “On Labor” (1981) and “On Social Concern” (1987), Pope John Paul II wrote of the “heritage of nature” being “intolerably polluted” as the “direct or indirect result of industrialization…with serious consequences for the health of the population.” In his view, the human consequences of such pollution violate the moral laws regarding the full dignity of each person and of all persons. Such situations are instances of what John Paul calls “the structures of sin,” sin present in the very social structures of society.
Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist and biologist, reports from her own experience as a pregnant woman on the increased risks to the fetus in her book, Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood (2001). (“Faith” is her daughter’s name.) Ms. Steingraber notes: “If the world’s environment is contaminated, so too is the ecosystem of a mother’s body. If a mother’s body is contaminated, so too is the child who inhabits it.” She challenges the long-held view that the placenta serves as a barrier to toxins and reveals that pesticides with low molecular weights can cross from mother to fetus.
In addition, carbon monoxide in cities, released from industries, cars and trucks, furnaces and other sources, interferes with the circulation of oxygen in the body and can cause fetal growth retardation. Other major pollutants include PAH (polycydic aromatic hydrocarbons) released into the air from coal burning, diesel, oil, gas and even tobacco, which, if experienced in utero, can result in low I.Q. later in the child’s development (Environmental Health, 1/29/10, and Pediatrics, 7/20/09).
The chemical BPA, or bisphonel A, has been used for over 40 years in the manufacture of hard plastic food containers, including baby bottles, sippy cups, baby formula and baby food containers. If the fetus is exposed to a toxic form of BPA during development, the exposure produces possibly harmful effects even at low doses. Senator Diane Feinstein of California added a ban on BPA to the federal food safety act, but withdrew it after intensive lobbying by the chemical industry made certain that other members of Congress would block it.
Even tuna, a rich food source for millions, often contains heavy doses of mercury, a neurotoxin that can damage the brain and nervous system, particularly in fetuses and young children. In the bloodstreams of pregnant and nursing women, mercury can result in birth defects like learning disabilities, reduced I.Q. and cerebral palsy. Each year coal-fired plant smokestacks emit some 100 million pounds of mercury into the air. Another pervasive airborne pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, is correlated with low birth weight.
Fifty years have passed since Rachel Carson’s warnings of toxic pollutants in Silent Spring; it has been almost 40 years since the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling in Roe v. Wade. Yet the contaminants banned largely because of Carson’s work are still around, and the ramifications of the court’s 1973 decision still reverberate.
Ironically, Mercury, the Roman messenger of the gods, has returned in the 21st century as a danger, one of the most toxic chemicals affecting women, pregnant women, the fetus and the newborn. Why can’t pro-choice, pro-life and other groups concerned with women and children’s health join forces to stop mercury and other toxic 20th-century creations that fly through the air, flow in the waters and find home in the soil?
The tragedy underlying our failure to protect vulnerable populations and to care for the environment is that we have known about the results for years, sometimes decades, yet have taken little action. Some attempts have run up against a wall of vested interests. Although protection of the most vulnerable includes protection of the fetus, we must expand our view to include women likely to become pregnant, pregnant women, the fetus, the newborn and the young child—particularly among poor, isolated and marginalized people.
What Marla Cone saw as massive, insidious “moral injustice” and Pope John Paul saw as the “structures of sin” in relation to the consequences of environmental damage are violations of the common good of all. As the late pope notes, the virtue of solidarity means that we are called to commit ourselves “to the good of all, and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” Perhaps in this respect all the parties involved in the abortion battles could find common ground through solidarity.
Pro-life advocates interested in fetal and maternal health could expand their concerns to include the environmental factors that impede fetal development. Pro-choice advocates concerned that motherhood is freely chosen could expand their concerns to embrace the long-term health of women, lest their choices be “contaminated” by environmental factors in fetal and early childhood development. Let Mercury, whose caduceus of two intertwined serpents symbolizes health, become the messenger who awakens us to hazardous human invention and production. By joining forces to address environmental contamination, these advocates could promote common ground and push for stronger regulations, for the abolition of carcinogens and for continued vigilance over existing contaminants. The messenger could then bear good news to humankind once again.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 30, 2012
An earlier version of this article misidentified when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published. It was published fifty years ago (in 1962), not sixty years ago.