In Pittsburgh, people breathe air that is suffused with toxic matter, according to the American Lung Association. It’s gotten so bad, in fact, that in 2019, Pittsburgh was determined to be the worst place for Black women and birthing people to live.
Most would think these things are not connected, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Those concerned about reproductive and maternal health need to pay more attention to the climate crisis and other environmental disasters. And people concerned about our planet’s environment need to pay more attention to the increases in maternal and infant mortality.
Breathing in polluted air makes it more likely for pregnant people in Pittsburgh to give birth prematurely. Premature births and low birth weight make it more likely a baby will die in their first year and are linked to both immediate health problems and life-long, chronic conditions.
Pittsburgh’s ongoing air pollution story is, unfortunately, not the only problem for healthy pregnancies, healthy mothers and healthy babies. Newer air pollution studies deepen decades of research connecting fossil fuel burning and fracking to thousands of struggling infants born too soon. Air pollution is also linked to harmful maternal health conditions like gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia.
Additionally, underregulated chemicals such as vinyl chloride, the chemical spilled in the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment earlier this year, harm both the fetus and the pregnant person. Research has also linked hotter temperatures and billowing wildfires due to climate change to higher rates of premature and low birth weight babies.
Most researchers agree that the effects of climate degradation and pollution on maternal and infant health have heavier consequences for Black people. Researchers have found the effect of extreme heat on preterm birth in Texas, California, Massachusetts and Alabama, for example, or on maternal complications in New York, are greater for Black people than their white counterparts.
And pregnant people in low-income neighborhoods in U.S. cities, often where people of color live, do not face one environmental health problem in isolation but often several, including air pollution, water pollution, lack of access to fresh produce, unlivable urban heat islands and so much more.
We also know that people in these communities may have pregnancies that aren’t as healthy because of general poor health and obstacles stemming from systemic racism. In Pittsburgh, home to New Voices for Reproductive Justice, (where one of us is executive director), we see our Black and immigrant communities struggling with higher rates of heart, lung and hormonal diseases that can affect all age groups and that shorten life and make pregnancy complications more likely. Across Pennsylvania, Black people are more than twice as likely to have a preterm baby.
Research affirms what we already know to be true, that all communities’ right to a healthy environment should be in the bucket together with access to safe abortion, birth control, family planning and maternal health care.
The Biden-Harris administration has shown support for reproductive rights advocates in their efforts to improve maternal health. They have also pledged to take climate action. But they have yet to connect the dots between the environmental justice and reproductive justice crisis in the U.S., even as they work to tackle both separately.
Human Rights Watch, (where one of us works as a senior researcher) and its partners, such as New Voices, have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to include reproductive justice expertise in their new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights. Ongoing initiatives such as the administration’s efforts to remove harmful lead piping could get a boost by re-engaging with the communities that reproductive rights organizations serve and actively using the reproductive justice framework. We also think reproductive justice should be on the agenda for Biden’s new Office for Climate Change and Health Equity.
Congress should properly fund the new offices and make sure the health needs and the right to a healthy environment are protected for people who are pregnant. Congress should also pass the Protecting Moms and Babies Against Climate Change Act, a bill in Rep. Lauren Underwood’s (D-Ill.) much-needed and sweeping Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act.
It is also vital for the EPA to include local, community-based reproductive justice organizations fighting on an individual level for pregnancy health on behalf of some of our most at-risk moms when disseminating the almost $3 billion in community environmental justice grants it plans to provide.
The Biden-Harris administration would do well to establish an interagency task force that works with the maternal and newborn health community using a reproductive justice framework that combines environmental advances with maternal and infant health. If it fails to do so, the maternal crisis in the United States will only continue to deepen.
Skye Wheeler is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. Kelly Davis is the executive director of New Voices for Reproductive Justice, a non-profit organization.