Environmental Justice Is An Abortion Rights Issue

If the Supreme Court overturns Roe this summer, as experts predict, people will have to travel much father to access abortion care—at a time when the U.S. desperately need to reduce its carbon emissions.

Activists in a flash mob put on by the group “Act for Abortion” in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 22, 2022, the 49th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

Across the U.S., bodily autonomy and self-determination are being restricted by a record-breaking wave of anti-abortion legislation. In September 2021, Texas became the first state to ever enact a law banning abortion at just six weeks gestation. Today, at least 10 states are considering bills copying S.B. 8, and with the possibility of an overturn in Roe v Wade, many states are poised to ban abortion outright if that happens. These bans disproportionately impact people of color, low income individualstrans people and other historically marginalized populations.

While the violations of reproductive justice are paramount issues, there are also environmental costs which we must consider. Existing restrictions already force people to travel long distances to access care—whether that’s rural populations or people in states, like Mississippi, with only one abortion clinic. However if Roe is overturned, many people will have to travel much father to access care. For Florida residents, the average driving distance to access a clinic could increase more than 6,000 percent. In addition to the financial and emotional burden on the abortion-seeking individual, this is alarming at a time when we need to reduce our carbon emissions significantly and quickly.

Individual actions are not enough to reduce carbon emissions as large corporations are responsible for the vast majority of them, but individual choices and a cultural shift need to be part of our climate solutions. Flying and driving are a big part of that, but as abortion becomes increasingly inaccessible in much of the U.S., many more people may soon find themselves with no choice but to fly or drive long distances to access the care that they need. Medication abortion by mail offers a great option for some, but will not be the right decision for everyone needing an abortion, and access to abortion pills may be restricted as well. 

The climate impact of this increased travel and the need to fly is not the responsibility of individuals navigating difficult decisions about accessing care. With the uncertainty of how the pandemic will continue to progress globally, people face difficult choices about how to travel—balancing economic, time and health factors as well as the types of support available to them. Some face additional barriers while traveling, like damage to mobility aids when travelingplanes that don’t accommodate their bodies, and discrimination against head coverings and natural hair.

The fact that people must make these decisions to access care is a moral failing on the part of our society. People should be able to exercise their bodily autonomy and control their reproductive lives without leaving their communities. Whether people opt to make lengthy drives or to fly in the face of bans and restrictions, the environmental cost of forcing this travel will ultimately impact us all.

However, this impact will be disparate. Climate change is disproportionately impacting people based on race and class, and it has disproportionate impacts on those in the Global South. People of color are exposed to pollution at higher rates. Unaffordable housing pushes people to live in areas subjected to worsening wildfiresIndigenous communities face greater risks from oil pipelines, and the same is true with nuclear technology. These are global issues—U.S. emissions have huge implications for island nations that could be eliminated by sea level rise. Within the U.S. the same populations disproportionately impacted by climate change are also disproportionately impacted by abortion bans. Many of those facing the emotional cost of having their bodily autonomy denied and the financial cost of trying to access care are the same people who will continue to face the worst of the climate crisis.  

People should be able to exercise their bodily autonomy and control their reproductive lives without leaving their communities.

As the climate crisis worsens, there will be greater risks to travel as well, with extreme weather making travel dangerous or impossible. Those traveling to the West Coast to seek care will have to contend with a wildfire season which keeps getting longer and more serious, and the hazards that accompany it such as air pollution and fires so large they generate weather. For people with underlying health conditions like asthma—which disproportionately impacts people of color—air pollution is particularly dangerous. On top of that, hazardous weather worsened by climate change can also close abortion clinics.

Experts warn us a consequence of climate change may be increasing pandemics as society expands into more natural areas in the context of a warming and globalized world. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues with catastrophic impacts around the world—and here in the U.S. where our healthcare infrastructure is crumbling—the risk of more frequent pandemics is not something to take lightly.

Reproductive choices and climate change are intimately and inextricably connected. Whether it’s the impact of climate change on people’s decisions about having childrenmiscarriage associated with pollution, climate change closing clinics, or abortion restrictions increasing emissions, reproductive justice and environmental justice need to be considered together as part of recognizing the role of gender in the climate crisis.

Individual decisions about how and whether to travel will not make or break our success in addressing the climate crisis, but policies that force an increase in emissions are not the answer. Environmental impact is an important part of protecting safe, legal and accessible abortion care, and moreover it is a consequence of abortion bans that we must not forget.

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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Katherine Gladhart-Hayes is an occupational therapy and public health student with a background in bioethics and history of science. She is interested in the relationship between science and society, particularly as it pertains to medicine, public health and the environment.