Pro-choice advocates understand that bringing a child into the world is a monumental decision not to be taken lightly. Lots of thinking, soul-searching, and planning are involved so that a new child can have the most opportunities and best life possible. We are aware of the environment that surrounds us and how it will affect our lives, as well as a child's life. And increasingly, many supporters of reproductive rights and women's health are including environmental health issues in their agenda.
And here we may have a little bit in common with today's breed of conservatives (I said a little!). Conservative Christians who consider abortion their main issue of concern are beginning to see a correlation between saving the fetus and saving the environment.
One among many environmental issues some anti-choicers have chosen to rally around is the problem of mercury emissions. At a pro-life rally in 2005, leaders from the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), one of the most politically powerful religious advocacy groups in the country, and the Evangelical Environmental Network, carried a banner that read, "Stop Mercury Poisoning of the Unborn." Noted placard-carrier Rev. Richard Cizik, the vice president at NAE, "If you reframe mercury regulations as a pro-life issue — curbing mercury emissions protects children from learning disabilities and unborn children from brain damage — that gets people's attention."
Mercury is emitted from power plants into nearby bodies of water, where it accumulates in fish. Nearly all fish contain traces of mercury, but fish closer to the top of the food chain (like the ever-popular tuna) contain higher levels of mercury that may damage a fetus's developing nervous system. Children born to women who eat mercury-contaminated fish are at a higher risk for a number of neurological disorders, including mental retardation and learning disabilities. Even more frightening is the news that in 2006 a study by the Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina-Asheville found that twenty percent of women of childbearing age have mercury levels in their blood that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency's recommended limit.
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And mercury is just one of many toxins that threaten women's reproductive health. Championing the rights of the unborn, some anti-abortion advocates are starting to become quite vocal about chemical toxins and environmental conditions that are not conducive to healthy fetuses.
Rev. Cizik explained his "conversion" to environmental activism in a December 19, 2006 interview on NPR. "I felt compelled, not unlike a Christian conversion to Christ, I should do something about what he owns – that is the earth – and attempt to save it from environmental destruction."
Cizik is in a curious position. He is one of few within the religious right preaching scientific facts of environmentalism. He is sympathizing with what has always been considered a liberal issue — and getting plenty of flack for this from fellow evangelicals. A letter sent to NAE, signed by the leaders of several prominent conservative Christian organizations and asking NAE leadership to prevent Cizik from speaking out further on environmental issues, argued that "Cizik and others are using the global warming controversy to shift emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time."
Cizik says he is not trying to be political in his advocacy, that he sees "creation care" as a moral, Biblical message. In a 2005 interview with Grist, he acknowledged that he — "for now" — has rejected offers from the Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation to work together, saying that evangelicals need first need to "develop our own voice and strategies and tactics."
Meanwhile, though many pro-choice advocates understand the strong relationship between environmental conditions and reproductive health, mainstream reproductive rights organizations have yet to actively rally around any environmental issues. Across the country, grassroots activists are working hard locally to clean up their communities – and many would greatly welcome help from those in women's health.
Loretta Ross, national coordinator for SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, says if pro-choice activists broaden their view of what "reproductive health" really means, they'd see they are fighting for the same causes as their friends in the environmental justice movement. "Many within the mainstream reproductive rights community support abortion and family planning as the primary means of achieving women's empowerment," she says. "Meanwhile, those within the environmental justice movement see no separation between human health and the environment, and are working first on remedying the ills in their community as a means of empowerment."
Simply put, both the reproductive health and environmental communities are concerned with empowering humanity. A fusion between the two movements could make them that much stronger. A larger support base, networking, expanding our philosophies and world views – this could be just the beginning!
While some conservatives are attempting to make environmental cleanup part of the pro-life agenda, we need to see how we are remiss in leaving this issue out of the pro-choice agenda. Reproductive health, rights and justice not only encompass the right to end a pregnancy, but also the right for women to have healthy children in healthy conditions.