Analysis Abortion

Glorifying the Fetus While Ignoring the Fetal Environment

On The Issues Magazine

A new realignment of anti-abortion and pro-choice positions may be needed to control the toxic mess that is harming fetuses and the future health of humans

Originally written by Margie Kelly for On The Issues Magazine

Abortion opponents long ago slapped their brand on the fetus, parading giant graphic images of fetuses in marches and now calling for laws mandating pictures of fetuses inside a woman’s body via sonograms – sometimes even broadcasting them live in anti-abortion campaigns.

By separating fetuses from the fetal environment, they make women into enemies of the fetus. But with evidence that the fetal environment is being involuntarily polluted by toxins spewed into the air, water, food and products, something is askew.

Currently, there is sharp contrast in how the government wields a big stick to protect fetal life when restricting abortion, but fails to limit toxic chemical exposure to protect fetal life — let alone the health of pregnant women.

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“You cannot separate the woman from the fetus. If you want good outcomes for the fetus, you need to focus on the woman,” said Luisa Cabal, Director of the International Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York City. “The government should take steps that don’t harm women to protect prenatal life.”

A new realignment of anti-abortion and pro-choice positions may be needed to control the toxic mess that is harming fetuses and the future health of humans.

Toxins Travel Into The Placenta

Scientific studies show exposure to toxic chemicals found in everyday products may increase the risk of harm to the developing fetus. Chemical exposure in the womb may lead to diseases and disorders later in life — from cancer and diabetes to autism, obesity, infertility and more.

In the early part of the 20th century, the placenta was considered an impenetrable barrier to substances that might harm the fetus. Now, we know the placenta is permeable, allowing toxic chemicals, along with drugs, alcohol and viruses to reach the developing fetus with negative effects. In utero exposure to mercury from fish and lead from dust is linked to impaired brain function, lower IQ and learning disabilities in children.

Studies on umbilical cord blood taken from newborn babies have confirmed that toxic chemicals, pesticides and pollutants are able to cross the placenta from mother to infant in the womb. One groundbreaking study on umbilical cord blood found newborn babies had an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants in their bodies.

The extent of chemical contamination is both shocking and completely unavoidable.

“No one has a choice in the matter. No one can remain free from chemical contamination of his or her own body,” said Sarah Janssen, Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Despite evidence of harm to the fetus from toxic chemical exposure, Congress hasn’t updated the nation’s chemical law for more than 30 years. “Under current law, chemical companies are given free rein to cause multi-generational harm,” said Janssen.

Toxic chemicals are everywhere in our modern life. Bisphenol A (BPA) is found in hard plastics, cash register receipts and in the lining of food cans; toxic flame retardants are in foam furniture, nursing pillows and circuit boards; and PFOA is used to make nonstick cookware, microwave popcorn bags and lubricants for skis.

The effects of chemical exposure are profound. BPA and flame retardants have been associated with early puberty in girls, which leads to risk factors for disease later in life, including breast cancer. Obesity and diabetes have been linked to prenatal exposure to certain chemicals nicknamed “obesegens” for their role in stimulating fat accumulation. Cancer-causing chemicals like lead and formaldehyde, and others that cause reproductive problems are present in many personal care products, like lotions and makeup.

While scientists are learning how a single chemical acts on the body, no one knows what the impacts are from having hundreds of chemicals streaming through our bodies. “We don’t have a very good picture of how chemicals work in combination,” said Tracey Woodruff, PhD., director of the University of California San Francisco Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, and co-author of the first study to confirm that pregnant women carry multiple chemicals in their bodies that are passed onto their fetuses. Woodruff’s study found that prenatal exposure to toxic chemicals in the womb or in early life can cause harm that would not happen had the exposure occurred later in life.

“We should all be concerned about the evidence showing toxic chemicals can harm human health beginning in the womb, regardless of religious, scientific, legal or political beliefs about whether the fetus is a person,” said Eve Gartner, a staff attorney for Earthjustice and a former litigator with Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “The consequences are too dire to ignore that there are real, long lasting impacts from toxic chemicals on all life.”

There’s broad agreement that toxic chemicals don’t belong in the womb.

Where is the Quality of Pro-Life?

But for all the emphasis on the fetus, pro-life organizations “have kept a pretty narrow focus on banning abortion with little to say about the quality of life after the fetus has been born,” said Janet Crepps, Deputy Director in the U.S. Legal Program of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

For example, protecting the developing fetus from harm caused by toxic chemicals is not a part of the campaign to secure personhood rights for a fertilized egg from the moment of conception, according to Jennifer Mason, Director of Communications for Personhood USA, an anti-choice organization. Its efforts to amend the constitutions of Colorado and Mississippi were defeated by voters, but efforts are underway to get similar amendments on the 2012 ballots in Florida, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Nevada and California.

In an interview, Mason acknowledged she was unfamiliar with the recent science about toxic chemicals and fetal development, but she found it alarming. “As a mom, it’s really concerning. Children should be protected. It’s important to tell pregnant women the truth about things that will harm their babies,” said Mason.

Could the presence of scores of toxic chemicals in newborn babies’ bodies be enough to channel the political power of the pro-life community to change U.S. chemical law?

The National Council of Churches, which has 100,000 congregations in its membership, has supported environmental health and justice work for decades. “We’re finding common ground with religious organizations about our shared concern over chemicals harming health,” said Lindsay Dahl, Deputy Director of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, which supports the federal reform of the nation’s toxic chemical law.

In November 2011, the Franciscans, a Catholic religious order, issued an action alert to support overhauling the national chemical management system by passing the Safe Chemicals Act. The Franciscans noted support for the act shows “appreciation for creation, reverence for human life and dignity at all stages, and respect for the poor and vulnerable.”

The concern of the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) about the impact of mercury on fetal health has led it to challenge pro-life Republicans on the morality of their opposition to regulations that limit mercury emissions. Mercury harms neurological development, leading to impaired cognitive thinking, memory, language and motor skills for children exposed in the womb.

EEN has identified mercury contamination as the most serious threat to women and, in its language, “their unborn children” since Roe v. Wade, according to an online petition signed by more than 100 evangelical leaders. “One in six babies born in the U.S. have harmful levels of mercury in their blood. Pro-life members of Congress should be doing everything they can to protect the unborn from this threat. For the life of me, I can’t understand why some are trying to block the EPA from regulating mercury levels when they know the unborn will pay the price,” said the Rev. Mitch Hescox, EEN president in a press release.

EEN is even running ads on Christian and country radio stations in the districts of pro-life House Republicans.

Catholic Bishop Stephen Blaire, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, has spoken publicly about joining the evangelical community to address the threat of mercury to “protect our unborn and young children.”

When the EPA finally acted in December 2011 to curtail mercury emissions from power plants to protect child health, New York Times writer Paul Krugman observed, “So, naturally, Republicans are furious.”

Reproductive rights advocates are cautious, too, noting that the effort to work with pro-life leaders on the shared concerns of national health care reform in 2010 was substantially undermined by pro-life demands to further restrict abortion.

Yet both sides agree there is a moral urgency to ending the contamination of human beings from toxic chemicals, beginning in the womb. Government interest in fetal life shouldn’t be limited to blocking women’s right to choose. Instead, governments should choose to protect the interest in a healthy fetus by protecting women’s health, specifically women’s right to bear children and their right to a healthy pregnancy.


Margie Kelly is an environmental health advocate and Communications Manager for Healthy Child Healthy World, an organization that ignites the movement that empowers parents to protect children from harmful chemicals. She is the former director of Communications at the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York and currently lives in Chicago. 

Analysis Law and Policy

After ‘Whole Woman’s Health’ Decision, Advocates Should Fight Ultrasound Laws With Science

Imani Gandy

A return to data should aid in dismantling other laws ungrounded in any real facts, such as Texas’s onerous "informed consent” law—HB 15—which forces women to get an ultrasound that they may neither need nor afford, and which imposes a 24-hour waiting period.

Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down two provisions of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, has changed the reproductive rights landscape in ways that will reverberate in courts around the country for years to come. It is no longer acceptable—at least in theory—for a state to announce that a particular restriction advances an interest in women’s health and to expect courts and the public to take them at their word.

In an opinion driven by science and data, Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority in Whole Woman’s Health, weighed the costs and benefits of the two provisions of HB 2 at issue—the admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center (ASC) requirements—and found them wanting. Texas had breezed through the Fifth Circuit without facing any real pushback on its manufactured claims that the two provisions advanced women’s health. Finally, Justice Breyer whipped out his figurative calculator and determined that those claims didn’t add up. For starters, Texas admitted that it didn’t know of a single instance where the admitting privileges requirement would have helped a woman get better treatment. And as for Texas’ claim that abortion should be performed in an ASC, Breyer pointed out that the state did not require the same of its midwifery clinics, and that childbirth is 14 times more likely to result in death.

So now, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in the case’s concurring opinion, laws that “‘do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion’ cannot survive judicial inspection.” In other words, if a state says a restriction promotes women’s health and safety, that state will now have to prove it to the courts.

With this success under our belts, a similar return to science and data should aid in dismantling other laws ungrounded in any real facts, such as Texas’s onerous “informed consent” law—HB 15—which forces women to get an ultrasound that they may neither need nor afford, and which imposes a 24-hour waiting period.

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In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld parts of Pennsylvania’s “informed consent” law requiring abortion patients to receive a pamphlet developed by the state department of health, finding that it did not constitute an “undue burden” on the constitutional right to abortion. The basis? Protecting women’s mental health: “[I]n an attempt to ensure that a woman apprehends the full consequences of her decision, the State furthers the legitimate purpose of reducing the risk that a woman may elect an abortion, only to discover later, with devastating psychological consequences, that her decision was not fully informed.”

Texas took up Casey’s informed consent mantle and ran with it. In 2011, the legislature passed a law that forces patients to undergo a medical exam, whether or not their doctor thinks they need it, and that forces them to listen to information that the state wants them to hear, whether or not their doctor thinks that they need to hear it. The purpose of this law—at least in theory—is, again, to protect patients’ “mental health” by dissuading those who may be unsure about procedure.

The ultra-conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law in 2012, in Texas Medical Providers v. Lakey.

And make no mistake: The exam the law requires is invasive, and in some cases, cruelly so. As Beverly McPhail pointed out in the Houston Chronicle in 2011, transvaginal probes will often be necessary to comply with the law up to 10 to 12 weeks of pregnancy—which is when, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 91 percent of abortions take place. “Because the fetus is so small at this stage, traditional ultrasounds performed through the abdominal wall, ‘jelly on the belly,’ often cannot produce a clear image,” McPhail noted.

Instead, a “probe is inserted into the vagina, sending sound waves to reflect off body structures to produce an image of the fetus. Under this new law, a woman’s vagina will be penetrated without an opportunity for her to refuse due to coercion from the so-called ‘public servants’ who passed and signed this bill into law,” McPhail concluded.

There’s a reason why abortion advocates began decrying these laws as “rape by the state.”

If Texas legislators are concerned about the mental health of their citizens, particularly those who may have been the victims of sexual assault—or any woman who does not want a wand forcibly shoved into her body for no medical reason—they have a funny way of showing it.

They don’t seem terribly concerned about the well-being of the woman who wants desperately to be a mother but who decides to terminate a pregnancy that doctors tell her is not viable. Certainly, forcing that woman to undergo the painful experience of having an ultrasound image described to her—which the law mandates for the vast majority of patients—could be psychologically devastating.

But maybe Texas legislators don’t care that forcing a foreign object into a person’s body is the ultimate undue burden.

After all, if foisting ultrasounds onto women who have decided to terminate a pregnancy saves even one woman from a lifetime of “devastating psychologically damaging consequences,” then it will all have been worth it, right? Liberty and bodily autonomy be damned.

But what if there’s very little risk that a woman who gets an abortion experiences those “devastating psychological consequences”?

What if the information often provided by states in connection with their “informed consent” protocol does not actually lead to consent that is more informed, either because the information offered is outdated, biased, false, or flatly unnecessary given a particular pregnant person’s circumstance? Texas’ latest edition of its “Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, for example, contains even more false information than prior versions, including the medically disproven claim that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks gestation.

What if studies show—as they have since the American Psychological Association first conducted one to that effect in 1989—that abortion doesn’t increase the risk of mental health issues?

If the purpose of informed consent laws is to weed out women who have been coerced or who haven’t thought it through, then that purpose collapses if women who get abortions are, by and large, perfectly happy with their decision.

And that’s exactly what research has shown.

Scientific studies indicate that the vast majority of women don’t regret their abortions, and therefore are not devastated psychologically. They don’t fall into drug and alcohol addiction or attempt to kill themselves. But that hasn’t kept anti-choice activists from claiming otherwise.

It’s simply not true that abortion sends mentally healthy patients over the edge. In a study report released in 2008, the APA found that the strongest predictor of post-abortion mental health was prior mental health. In other words, if you’re already suffering from mental health issues before getting an abortion, you’re likely to suffer mental health issues afterward. But the studies most frequently cited in courts around the country prove, at best, an association between mental illness and abortion. When the studies controlled for “prior mental health and violence experience,” “no significant relation was found between abortion history and anxiety disorders.”

But what about forced ultrasound laws, specifically?

Science has its part to play in dismantling those, too.

If Whole Woman’s Health requires the weighing of costs and benefits to ensure that there’s a connection between the claimed purpose of an abortion restriction and the law’s effect, then laws that require a woman to get an ultrasound and to hear a description of it certainly fail that cost-benefit analysis. Science tells us forcing patients to view ultrasound images (as opposed to simply offering the opportunity for a woman to view ultrasound images) in order to give them “information” doesn’t dissuade them from having abortions.

Dr. Jen Gunter made this point in a blog post years ago: One 2009 study found that when given the option to view an ultrasound, nearly 73 percent of women chose to view the ultrasound image, and of those who chose to view it, 85 percent of women felt that it was a positive experience. And here’s the kicker: Not a single woman changed her mind about having an abortion.

Again, if women who choose to see ultrasounds don’t change their minds about getting an abortion, a law mandating that ultrasound in order to dissuade at least some women is, at best, useless. At worst, it’s yet another hurdle patients must leap to get care.

And what of the mandatory waiting period? Texas law requires a 24-hour waiting period—and the Court in Casey upheld a 24-hour waiting period—but states like Louisiana and Florida are increasing the waiting period to 72 hours.

There’s no evidence that forcing women into longer waiting periods has a measurable effect on a woman’s decision to get an abortion. One study conducted in Utah found that 86 percent of women had chosen to get the abortion after the waiting period was over. Eight percent of women chose not to get the abortion, but the most common reason given was that they were already conflicted about abortion in the first place. The author of that study recommended that clinics explore options with women seeking abortion and offer additional counseling to the small percentage of women who are conflicted about it, rather than states imposing a burdensome waiting period.

The bottom line is that the majority of women who choose abortion make up their minds and go through with it, irrespective of the many roadblocks placed in their way by overzealous state governments. And we know that those who cannot overcome those roadblocks—for financial or other reasons—are the ones who experience actual negative effects. As we saw in Whole Woman’s Health, those kinds of studies, when admitted as evidence in the court record, can be critical in striking restrictions down.

Of course, the Supreme Court has not always expressed an affinity for scientific data, as Justice Anthony Kennedy demonstrated in Gonzales v. Carhart, when he announced that “some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained,” even though he admitted there was “no reliable data to measure the phenomenon.” It was under Gonzales that so many legislators felt equipped to pass laws backed up by no legitimate scientific evidence in the first place.

Whole Woman’s Health offers reproductive rights advocates an opportunity to revisit a host of anti-choice restrictions that states claim are intended to advance one interest or another—whether it’s the state’s interest in fetal life or the state’s purported interest in the psychological well-being of its citizens. But if the laws don’t have their intended effects, and if they simply throw up obstacles in front of people seeking abortion, then perhaps, Whole Woman’s Health and its focus on scientific data will be the death knell of these laws too.

News Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats: ‘Open the Big Tent’ for Us

Christine Grimaldi & Ally Boguhn

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Democrats for Life of America gathered Wednesday in Philadelphia during the party’s convention to honor Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for his anti-choice viewpoints, and to strategize ways to incorporate their policies into the party.

The group attributed Democratic losses at the state and federal level to the party’s increasing embrace of pro-choice politics. The best way for Democrats to reclaim seats in state houses, governors’ offices, and the U.S. Congress, they charged, is to “open the big tent” to candidates who oppose legal abortion care.

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

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Democrats for Life of America members repeatedly attempted to distance themselves from Republicans, reiterating their support for policies such as Medicaid expansion and paid maternity leave, which they believe could convince people to carry their pregnancies to term.

Their strategy, however, could have been lifted directly from conservatives’ anti-choice playbook.

The group relies, in part, on data from Marist, a group associated with anti-choice polling, to suggest that many in the party side with them on abortion rights. Executive Director Kristen Day could not explain to Rewire why the group supports a 20-week abortion ban, while Janet Robert, president of the group’s board of directors, trotted out scientifically false claims about fetal pain

Day told Rewire that she is working with pro-choice Democrats, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, both from New York, on paid maternity leave. Day said she met with DeLauro the day before the group’s event.

Day identifies with Democrats despite a platform that for the first time embraces the repeal of restrictions for federal funding of abortion care. 

“Those are my people,” she said.

Day claimed to have been “kicked out of the pro-life movement” for supporting the Affordable Care Act. She said Democrats for Life of America is “not opposed to contraception,” though the group filed an amicus brief in U.S. Supreme Court cases on contraception. 

Democrats for Life of America says it has important allies in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Sens. Joe Donnelly (IN), Joe Manchin (WV), and Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL), along with former Rep. Bart Stupak (MI), serve on the group’s board of advisors, according to literature distributed at the convention.

Another alleged ally, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), came up during Edwards’ speech. Edwards said he had discussed the award, named for Casey’s father, former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, the defendant in the landmark Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which opened up a flood of state-level abortions restrictions as long as those anti-choice policies did not represent an “undue burden.”

“Last night I happened to have the opportunity to speak to Sen. Bob Casey, and I told him … I was in Philadelphia, receiving this award today named after his father,” Edwards said.

The Louisiana governor added that though it may not seem it, there are many more anti-choice Democrats like the two of them who aren’t comfortable coming forward about their views.

“I’m telling you there are many more people out there like us than you might imagine,” Edwards said. “But sometimes it’s easier for those folks who feel like we do on these issues to remain silent because they’re not going to  be questioned, and they’re not going to be receiving any criticism.”

During his speech, Edwards touted the way he has put his views as an anti-choice Democrat into practice in his home state. “I am a proud Democrat, and I am also very proudly pro-life,” Edwards told the small gathering.

Citing his support for Medicaid expansion in Louisiana—which went into effect July 1—Edwards claimed he had run on an otherwise “progressive” platform except for when it came to abortion rights, adding that his policies demonstrate that “there is a difference between being anti-abortion and being pro-life.”

Edwards later made clear that he was disappointed with news that Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock, whose organization works to elect pro-choice women to office, was being considered to fill the position of party chair in light of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation.

“It wouldn’t” help elect anti-choice politicians to office, said Edwards when asked about it by a reporter. “I don’t want to be overly critical, I don’t know the person, I just know that the signal that would send to the country—and to Democrats such as myself—would just be another step in the opposite direction of being a big tent party [on abortion].” 

Edwards made no secret of his anti-choice viewpoints during his run for governor in 2015. While on the campaign trail, he released a 30-second ad highlighting his wife’s decision not to terminate her pregnancy after a doctor told the couple their daughter would have spina bifida.

He received a 100 percent rating from anti-choice organization Louisiana Right to Life while running for governor, based off a scorecard asking him questions such as, “Do you support the reversal of Roe v. Wade?”

Though the Democratic Party platform and nominee have voiced the party’s support for abortion rights, Edwards has forged ahead with signing numerous pieces of anti-choice legislation into law, including a ban on the commonly used dilation and evacuation (D and E) procedure, and an extension of the state’s abortion care waiting period from 24 hours to 72 hours.