Reproductive Justice on the Frontlines of US Climate Action

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Nancy Pedroza, 27, who is pregnant, receives support from Nichollette Jones, her doula, in Fort Worth, Texas, April 7, 2020.
© 2020 REUTERS/Callaghan O’Hare

Massive heatwaves in recent weeks have gripped and even shut down power in parts of the United States. Wildfires billow out smoke. Meanwhile, the coming hurricane season is predicted to be bad, as it has been in recent years. These disasters have multiple, harmful impacts, especially for communities of color, and are an increasing threat due to climate change.

One underacknowledged threat from the climate crisis is its impact on the health of pregnant people and the developing fetus. Pregnant people are more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses, and exposure to heat and wildfire smoke are associated with still birth and premature and low weight births (themselves both linked to higher infant death rates).

This makes the environmental crisis a reproductive health and equality crisis. The US has struggled with increasing rates of preterm birth for years, and rates are twice as bad for Black infants as white. Now, reproductive justice advocates and frontline birth workers, such as doulas and midwives, are intervening to support pregnancy health in the face of additional pressures from the climate crisis.

Vanessa Vassal at Black Millennials for Flint and partners work with doulas to raise awareness of lead in water as well as other work to promote maternal health and environmental justice through a Black, Latinx and Indigenous lens. Another organization, Birthmark Doulas, have developed tools for doulas and their clients to prepare for hurricanes. We recently met with doulas in Miami, in a training run by doula and reproductive justice activist Esther McCant, who all know extreme heat and hurricanes will be part of future clients’ lives. 

Studies show the benefits of doulas in addressing maternal health. Doulas are often more deeply involved with many parts of clients’ lives and spend more time with clients than some other care providers can manage. 

Doulas, if properly resourced and paid for this work, can be powerful tools in helping to prepare and protect pregnant people from climate threats. Reproductive health workers, like doulas, should be better able to access grants and other resources to help address the dangers of the climate crisis for their clients.

The three of us will continue to press for reproductive justice to be recognized as a core piece of environmental justice. But we want to learn more and hear what doulas, midwives, lactation consultants and other clinical and non-clinical maternal health workers already do to address climate impacts, or what more you want to do! Please get in touch here!

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