The recent decision by the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade sent shockwaves across the globe and has raised several burning questions with regards to the intersection between reproductive rights and other areas of policy-making, such as climate change.
gender equality, sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), and climate change issues are inextricably linked.
What is reproductive justice?
The reproductive justice movement grew out of Black women’s frustrations with the limits of the reproductive rights framework that failed to capture the complex socio-political and economic dynamics that many women of colour experience. The term was first coined in 1994, by Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice; at the time, a group of Black women declared that reproductive justice takes the discussion further than reproductive rights - and the pro-choice or pro-life dichtonomy. This framework addresses the ways that race, sexual orientation, citizenship status and religious are systematically targeted to limit women’s and birth people’s ability exercise their rights of choice and autonomy. It is premised on three tenets: (1) the right not to have a child; (2) the right to have a child; and (3) the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments.
Intersections between reproductive justice and environmental justice
The environmental justice movement is a social movement to address the unfair exposure of poor and marginalised communities to harms associated with resource extraction, hazardous waste, and other land uses. In 2012, Kathleen M. de Onıl argued that reproductive justice should be understood alongside environmental justice and climate change, because issues like unhealthy drinking water can impact physical and reproductive health and children's health.
According to the same report by Women Deliver:
Climate change risks increasing social, including gender, inequalities. In addition, as global temperatures rise, extreme weather events like floods, droughts, and heatwaves particularly threaten the health and rights of girls and women. In turn, gender, sexuality, age, wealth, indigeneity, and race are all determining factors in the vulnerability to climate change.
Kathleen M. de Onıl’s work was a response to “Looking Both Ways: Women's Lives at the Crossroads of Reproductive Justice and Climate Justice,” a publication of Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, which argued that “looking both ways” at reproductive justice and climate justice will protect the reproductive justice of women of colour, low-income, and immigrant women during climate change crises.
Research is illustrating the impact climate change has as a stressor on reproductive health, increasing already heightened burdens on women of colour. The cumulative effects of rising temperature averages, air pollution, and the increasing risk of displacement and disruption due to extreme weather, combined with already inadequate or non-existent access to reproductive health services, contributes to higher rates of maternal and infant mortality among women of colour.
The foul discrimination against women comes to undermine their role in sustainable development. While this has been unequivocally accepted by the Sustainable Development Goals, the potential criminalisation of abortion in a country with an influential sway over international relations, leads to the complete impediment of women potentially participating in building a sustainable future, as such depends on their health and rights. Where such is not ensured or violated as a result of a ban on abortions has the potential to directly limit sustainable development globally. This is not to take an American-centric perspective on international policy, but to illustrate the essential role that women play in the climate change discourse; situating women as second-class citizens is almost guaranteed to have a negative impact on the progression of the climate change discourse.
Climate change is not a gender-neutral issue, in the US, natural disasters disproportionately displace women from their homes in comparison to their male counterparts. The inadequate or nonexistent access to reproductive healthcare, can lead to the worsening health of women, especially women of colour, which can be exacerbated by the impact of climate change.
Reproductive rights and climate change policy
The Working Group II’s report from the UN IPCC, for the first time linked women’s sexual and reproductive health and the impacts of climate change. The authors note the risks pregnant women face in a changing climate. They also cite increased access to reproductive health and family planning services as contributing to climate change resilience. However, such observations should be taken with a grain of salt. While the argument is simple to understand, it hides a lot of justice-related layers of complexity. Better family planning may lead to reduced birth rates, and hence lower carbon footprints - simple, right? No, this is a dangerous narrative that has been used to ‘other’ developing nations while deflecting the blame with regards to greenhouse gas emissions by developed nations and to avoid loss and damage compensations. In reality, the per capita emissions in countries with higher birth rates is much lower than that of their counterparts. It is argued that the tragedy-of-the-commons-based argument ignores the fact that overpopulation is now the result of better healthcare and, hence, longer lives.
Furthermore, it risks leading to the restraint of women’s reproductive rights even further. Therefore, a loose or absent reproductive health rights have the potential to lead to the restriction of women’s bodily autonomy in the name of climate change.
According to Zainab Yunusa, a feminist advocate who serves as a delegate with both the UNFCCC’s Youth Constituency (YOUNGO) and the Women and Gender Constituency (WGC), where she advocates for inclusiveness in global climate change decision-making and action.
I’ve seen that even well-intentioned interventions fail when assumptions are made about women and girls’ needs rather than consulting them directly. This results in superficial, unsustainable projects and policies that local communities do not want to buy into – leaving us right back where we started. And, we waste precious resources. A participatory approach can help avoid these pitfalls and ensure that communities, as well as women and girls, benefit in the long term.
The clear intersection between reproductive justice and climate and environmental justice is multilayered, it is forward looking but also informed from the past. The overturning of Roe v Wade has led to a utopian reality for many Americans as well as those of us abroad who try to comprehend what this could mean for other sectors of international society.