Extracting Resources from Mother Earth and Restricting Resources for Women

For more than 15 years I have been an advocate for the environment AND for reproductive rights. But always one at a time. I’d attend meetings with different partners; at different places. I’d talk about coastal erosion over here with these folks; and Roe v Wade with these. Didn’t both of these issues matter? I am not just a person who lives near the toe of this boot under the annual threat to my home and my wellbeing – I am a woman living with this threat. I am a mother.

I am grateful to be here today to talk about Environmental Justice AND Reproductive Justice in the same room – to the same folks. These movements share a common concern about the health of families and communities, and both recognize the right of all people to reproductive health including the right of all women to have healthy pregnancies and to raise their children in safe and healthy environments. 

Reproductive justice, if you are not familiar with this term, is concept that was first developed in the mid-1990s by a group of African American women leaders who understood that the reproductive rights movement’s narrow focus on “choice” did not adequately speak to the lived realities and experiences of women of color and women from low-income communities. Today, the movement is led by organizations like Women with a Vision and Sistersong, whose work places reproductive health and rights within a social justice and human rights framework. Reproductive Justice supports the rights of individuals to have the children they want, to raise them free from harm and to plan their families through safe, legal access to contraception and abortion.

Sadly, the actions of state and federal lawmakers to prioritize polluters and corporations at the expense of women and their families, to dismantle vital environmental protections, undermine science-based decision-making, perpetuate structural economic inequality and drastically restrict access to reproductive health care services are causing significant harm to women and their families - exacerbating the environmental threats that many already face.

These threats are layered on top of one another and must be considered together to fully understand the cumulative impacts they have on women, their families, and their communities. Unfortunately, for far too long, we have failed to make the connections, and our efforts to address each problem individually have prevented us from seeking a comprehensive approach. We cannot address climate change as solely an environmental phenomenon, it is also a human rights imperative, and thus a women’s rights imperative.

As a nation, we have sought to extract as many resources from Mother Earth as technology allows. At the same time, we have restricted access to the resources that women and mothers need. This has resulted in critical threats to the health and wellbeing of both. Let me explain.

Resource extraction and pollution threaten women’s health in many ways Exposure to air pollutants and increasing heat can lead to adverse pregnancy outcomes, specifically stillbirth as well as premature birth and low birth weight, both of which often have life-long consequences. Air pollution is of particular concern for communities of color: African Americans face a 54 percent higher health burden as a result of air pollution compared with the general population, due in part to the fact that many polluting facilities are located in predominantly black communities. Greater exposure to chemicals contributes to higher rates of birth defects, low-birth weight, stillbirth, and miscarriage for women of color.  Evidence suggests that exposure to certain toxic chemicals in both fetuses and young children can also cause developmental delays.

Environmental toxins’ threats to reproductive health outcomes must be understood in the context of a rising maternal mortality rate in the United States. The United States is one of only 13 countries in the world where the rate of maternal mortality — the death of a woman related to pregnancy or childbirth up to a year after the end of pregnancy — is now worse than it was 25 years ago. The rate is particularly high in Louisiana, where black women are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as their white counterparts. There is no doubt, that environmental racism which places women of color in closer proximity to environmental toxins, as well as racism in health care affects the ability of women of color to access high quality care. These factors compound. the overall threat to black women’s health. 

We need to both broaden and strengthened toxic chemical safety programs AND increase access to high quality reproductive pre- and post-natal care to ensure women can protect themselves from infertility, reproductive cancers, and other deleterious health impacts.

While environmental destruction has been wreaking havoc on women’s health for decades, climate change introduces new challenges and, once again, women are uniquely affected by the impacts. Women’s greater vulnerability to climate change stems from gender norms and discrimination that result in lower incomes and fewer economic opportunities, less access and control over land and other assets, fewer legal rights, less mobility, and less political and professional representation. If we don’t understand how climate change impacts women and men differently, existing gender inequalities are likely to be exacerbated by climate change.

What are some of the ways in which climate change impacts women?

Women in the Gulf States, are significantly more likely than men to experience poverty and have less socioeconomic power than men, making recovery from extreme weather events more difficult. In fact, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama have some of the highest rates of women living in poverty. We know that climate change worsens the cycle of poverty and vulnerability for women and girls and women are more likely than men to die during and in the aftermath of disasters. Women also face more threats of domestic violence and sexual assault associated with a lack of safe spaces in relief centers and shelters as well as a shortage of housing that’s affordable for low-income women supporting families.

Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to potential climate impacts, such as increased psychological stress, nutritional deficiency, and, as previously mentioned, rising temperatures. Yet, in the Gulf States, few resources are available to address the reproductive health needs of women and these needs are frequently left out of plans to address threats from climate change, such as displacement and extreme weather events.

Across the Gulf States, contraception and prenatal care are denied to women – its either not available, not affordable, or social and/or religious motives ensure that it’s banned or heavily restricted. In Louisiana, for example, there are provider shortages, large numbers of uninsured women, and policies restricting access to reproductive health services. These conditions are likely to leave women who may have to evacuate during a hurricane unable to access the reproductive health care they need, like prenatal care, contraception, or abortion.

Contraception is crucial for helping women avoid unintended pregnancies, which can be even more important for women facing the uncertainties of an evacuation or displacement.  Nevertheless, state and federal governments are making it more difficult for women to access birth control and other reproductive health services, like abortion. This new administration is cutting funding for programs like the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program and making drastic changes to Title X, which provides affordable family planning services to low-income communities. Opposition to insurance coverage for contraception under Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) has resulted in court decisions that strip women of that benefit if they work for an employer with objections to birth control.

We are denying women access to pregnancy prevention services - which will result in more unplanned pregnancies - at the same we are passing restrictions that prevent them from ending a pregnancy. 

For example, state and federal laws restrict insurance coverage and public funding for abortion services, ban the use of telemedicine to obtain abortion medication used to end the pregnancy in the first trimester, and require counseling and waiting periods, designed to discourage women from going through with the procedure. 

Across the nation, the states where the sexual and reproductive health needs of women are unmet and where lawmakers are hostile to reproductive rights are also the places that are most vulnerable to extractive industries and the threats of climate change. 

When there is unmet need for family planning services, maternal and child health is worse and unplanned pregnancies increase, which negatively impacts climate change vulnerability and hampers economic development. Providing rights-based, voluntary family planning programs would have powerful, positive impacts on the health, welfare, and life expectancy of both women and their children. For this reason, sexual and reproductive health services, like family planning, must be included in plans for climate adaptation and climate resilient development. 

We should be enabling women the world over to become educated and empowered about their own bodies and reproductive health as part of the solution to the human impact on the environment. However, we must be vigilant in pursuing solutions that do not coerce women in their reproductive decisions. We must be honest about the ways that reproductive health policies have been used, and may continue to be used, to control the bodies of women of color and to perpetuate racism in the delivery of services. We must demonstrate our commitment to a comprehensive vision of reproductive rights that goes beyond family planning and abortion rights to include the rights of all women to bear and raise healthy children.

As mothers, caregivers, and heads of families, women know how seriously climate impacts the health and wellbeing of their children. Where there is a constraint on resources –communities who have contributed the least to the problem of climate change are the ones who will bear the most devastating consequences. Yet as women and our children are forced to bear the brunt of the consequences of climate change, we have been systematically excluded from decision-making mechanisms and denied agency in deciding when and how to overcome the vulnerabilities we face. We must be mindful of the ways policies or projects implemented without women’s meaningful participation can increase existing inequalities and decrease effectiveness. 

Black women across the south have been leading the fight for environmental justice for decades and their environmental concerns are connected to the experiences of women across the country, from Native American women who stand up to defend their communities from toxic pipelines to Black women in Flint who demand clean water. As we work together to address the future of our planet and humanity, we must demand that women are at the table and our needs are firmly on the agenda. 




Population & Sustainability Network (2016) Climate Change: Time to “Think Family Planning”. Available at: http://populationandsustainability.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Climate-Change-Time-to-Think-Family-Planning-Final.pdf

Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (2015) Women and Climate Change: Impact and Agency in Human Rights, Security, and Economic Development. Available at: https://giwps.georgetown.edu/resource/women-and-climate-change/

Guttmacher Institute (2018). An Overview of Abortion Laws. Available at: https://www.guttmacher.org/print/state-policy/explore/overview-abortion-...

Jennifer J. Frost, Lori F. Frohwirth, Nakeisha Blades, Mia R. Zolna, Ayana Douglas-Hall and Jonathan Bearak (2017). Publicly Funded Contraceptive Services at U.S. Clinics. Guttmacher Institute. Available at: https://www.guttmacher.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/publicly_funded_contraceptive_services_2015_3.pdf

Hasstedt, K. (2018). Four Big Threats To The Title X Family Planning Program: Examining The Administration’s New Funding Opportunity Announcement. Guttmacher Institute. Available at: https://www.guttmacher.org/article/2018/03/four-big-threats-title-x-family-planning-program-examining-administrations-newPlumer, B. and N. Popovich (2017) As Climate Changes, Southern States Will Suffer More Than Others. New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/29/climate/southern-states-worse-climate-effects.html

Keynote Address delivered by Michelle Erenberg, Executive Director, at Katrina 13: Honoring Women & the Sacred Feminine in Climate Disaster Recovery, August 29, 2018.