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.