It’s Not Just the Supreme Court—It’s the Fossil Fuel Industry, Too

I am one of the millions who grew up on the frontlines of urban oil extraction, which presents serious dangers to our health. I can no longer determine my reproductive future—but I can still use my voice so others may decide their own.

Activists rally near the U.S. Capitol on July 6, 2022. The group Climate Action Campaign organized the rally to protest against the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v. EPA, which limits the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Just over six weeks ago, abortion and reproductive rights in the United States changed forever. By overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court not only rejected decades of legal precedent and the majority of Americans who support abortion access, but also jeopardized the health of millions of people who may become pregnant. At least 10 states have successfully and completely banned abortion, with more to follow in the coming weeks, and six states have severely restricted it with gestational age limit bans.

The ruling has dire consequences, but they won’t impact the country equally—because the communities that disproportionately lack abortion and reproductive healthcare services are also the ones uniquely affected by environmental injustices.

Decades of public health impacts have shown us that communities who struggled to access reproductive healthcare, even before Roe v. Wade‘s repeal, are the same ones who have faced decades of environmental racism and injustice. These are the Black, Brown, Indigenous and low-income communities facing the most catastrophic impacts from losing abortion protections and disproportionately living, working and playing near oil and gas drilling sites.

I am one face of the millions of people on the frontlines of urban oil extraction. Toxicologists who came to my community explained that certain chemicals used in oil extraction, as well as poisonous pollution, present serious dangers to human health.

As a young child, I endured asthma, nosebleeds, stomach pains, headaches, heart palpitations and body spasms as a result of living near drilling sites.

At 19, I was diagnosed with cancer. My winding recovery path involved three surgeries, including a hysterectomy, and extensive, invasive treatments before I was declared cancer-free.

Everything I had been through changed my body forever, including the stark reality that I can never have children. It’s possible that I would not have wanted to have children. It’s also possible that I would have wanted to have many. But I no longer have the choice to make—the fossil fuel industry’s poisonous pollution made that decision for me.

And even for those members of communities like mine who are able to get pregnant, there remain life-threatening health risks as a result of climate destruction. About 17 million people in the United States live within one mile of an active oil or gas well, with 2.1 million in my home state of California. A study from Stanford University found that women living near oil and gas wells were more likely to experience spontaneous preterm births, the leading cause of infant death in the United States. What’s more, the study found an increased associated risk for women who were Hispanic or Black.

It’s possible that I would not have wanted to have children. It’s also possible that I would have wanted to have many. But I no longer have the choice to make—the fossil fuel industry’s poisonous pollution made that decision for me.

When we’re talking about climate change, we’re not just talking about the planet—we’re talking about the people who live on it. We’re talking about our elders. We’re talking about the health of people who may or may not want to become pregnant. We’re talking about our current and future children. We’re talking about all of us having a choice whether or not to create life; being able to lead healthy, fulfilling lives; and providing a livable future for our children.

When the Supreme Court decided to overturn Roe v. Wade, it took away a choice for millions of people to control if and when they have children. We can and must speak out against this decision that has detrimental impacts for so many—especially for Black, Brown, Indigenous and low-income communities.

Simultaneously, we should be talking about another daily threat to our health and our ability to make our own reproductive choices. Fossil fuels are poisoning our futures and robbing our children of theirs. Every day, they are robbing people of the option to decide what they get to do with their lives and their bodies, all in the name of astronomical profits.

While I can no longer exercise my right to determine my reproductive future, I can still use my voice so that others may write their own stories. We can, and will, hold those who poison our communities accountable. We deserve the right to choose.

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

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Nalleli Cobo is the 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize winner, co-founder of the 'People Not Pozos' (People Not Oil Wells) program, and a youth environmental activist.