In the past few months, people across the U.S. have faced extreme climate hazards such as wildfires on the West Coast, flooding that contributed to undrinkable water in Mississippi and left hundreds homeless in eastern Kentucky, and record-breaking heat waves. Concurrently, four states have passed near-total abortion bans, and the first abortion ban passed after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade has taken effect in Indiana.
Climate disasters and abortion restrictions exist alongside one another in news headlines, and now environmental and abortion rights activists are warning that both issues have the potential to exacerbate each other.
A double burden
Both Roe’s fall and climate change affect bodily autonomy decisions. Abortion restrictions disproportionately impact low-income people of color. Similarly, climate change impacts also affect those already marginalized at higher rates. Nine of the 10 states most likely to suffer dire consequences from climate change are in the South, which also contains states with some of the most restrictive abortion bans. According to 2019 data by Pew Research, over half of the country’s Black population live in southern states. Activists say the impacts of climate change and abortion restrictions will affect those who are already most at risk.
“Climate change has a dramatic economic, social, and health impact on communities, and the greatest burden is borne by people and communities who are marginalized—women, BIPOC, low-income communities. The same is true for the impact of abortion restrictions,” said Jennifer Daw Holloway, the communications director at Ipas, a reproductive justice group that also focuses on climate justice.
The combined effects of redlining, racist housing policies and climate issues like air pollution impact Black communities the most, at 1.54 times the burden compared to the general population. People of color are also more likely to live in areas with higher temperatures and higher concentrations of air pollution than their white counterparts. This is due, in part, to the urban heat island effect, where dense concentrations of concrete absorb and trap heat in neighborhoods most affected by structural racism.
Low-income and communities of color are also more likely to live in flood plains and near industrial power plants.
“Women and [other] people want to have the freedom from being polluted by toxic chemicals, and they are denied this freedom, while at the same time their freedom to decide what is the right health care choice is being taken away,” said Dr. Tracey J. Woodruff, the director of UCSF’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment.
Indigenous people bear the brunt of climate change at higher rates from events like heat exposure, draughts, and extreme weather. Before Roe’s fall, access to abortion for Indigenous people was already tenuous. Indian Health Services, which provides care for over 2.6 million Indigenous people, restricts abortion in most cases. Roe’s fall will only pose increased barriers to abortion access for Indigenous communities. Climate change can also compound the effects of abortion criminalization.
“We know from Ipas’s work around the world what happens when abortion is criminalized, which is the direction the U.S. appears to be heading,” Holloway said. “Abortions do not decrease, women face greater economic struggles, and their children have fewer resources. Women, pregnant people, and providers go to jail, many pregnant people will be forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, and everyone will have less freedom. Climate change will exacerbate these issues.”
Climate change and reproductive health outcomes
A critical overlap of climate change and abortion restrictions is the dangerous impacts on birth and pregnancy. Climate change may lead to outcomes such as low birth weights, preterm births, stillbirth, and increased neonatal deaths. Exposure to air pollutants can also cause lower fertility and lower birth rates.
Emissions, rising temperatures, and climate disasters such as heatwaves and flooding make pregnancy riskier, leading to higher rates of miscarriage. In Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch of land home to more than 150 petrochemical plants and refineries, residents report increased miscarriages. The majority of residents who live in Cancer Alley are low-income and Black. Because of Roe’s overturning, abortion is now completely banned in Louisiana.
Climate change could also negatively impact maternal mortality, where the U.S. has the poorest rates compared to other high-income countries. In 2020, the maternal mortality rate for Black people was 55.3 deaths per 100,000 live births, which is almost three times the rate for white people. Without legal protections to abortion, maternal mortality rates will continue to climb, with an estimated 33% rise in deaths for Black people.
Climate change affects abortion access
There is not one facet of the healthcare system that goes unscathed by climate change. Experts say climate change may lead to future pandemics, which wreak further havoc on already taxed healthcare systems. Unprecedented climate disasters like heat waves, wildfires, heavy storms and floods can also impact people traveling out of state and in-state to receive services.
According to estimates before Roe’s fall, up to 16,000 out-of-state travelers will seek abortion care in California, where abortion is still protected. However, wildfires and other climate disasters have forced clinics to close in recent years. As more people flock to California for services, the state is battling its second largest wildfire of the season.
“Climate impacts such as heat, flooding, and extreme storms undermine people’s ability to access health care and that includes abortion,” Woodruff said. “And when people can’t access reproductive health care, it can threaten their health and lives.”
For those who can afford to travel out of state for an abortion, distances increase as policies become more restrictive. In Texas, the average driving distance to get an abortion out of state before 22 weeks is 547 miles. Just days after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, the conservative majority voted to curb the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to reduce carbon emissions. CO2 is the largest contributor to climate change, emitted by flying and driving. Reducing emissions becomes more unattainable as abortion restrictions force people to travel increased distances to access care.
Climate disasters also exacerbate sexual and gender-based violence. A 2021 study examined abortion access after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and found that the disaster created additional barriers to abortion, such as clinic closures and an increased need for funding.
“At the heart of both abortion rights and environmental health is the right to health and autonomy—be it to have access to clean air and water and safe homes, products, and workplaces or access to healthcare and the ability to make choices about one’s own body and life,” Woodruff said.
Holloway said climate change policies that include a reproductive justice lens are key players in climate change mitigation. One such bill that was re-introduced in Congress this year is the Women and Climate Change Act of 2022, which will develop policies around the effects of climate change on women, improve data collection, and prevent or respond to the effects of climate change on women. The bill is in its first stage of the legislative process.
As the effects of both climate change and Roe’s demise unfold, it’s critical to maintain a framework that continues to include how reproductive and environmental rights will affect one another.