Monday, February 26, 2024

The climate emergency is a matter of reproductive justice

  1. Naomi Delap, director1,
  2. Katherine Miller Brunton, policy, communications, and engagement officer1,
  3. Kate Metcalf, co-director2

  1. 1Birth Companions

  2. 2Women’s Environmental Network

To tackle the climate emergency, reproductive justice principles must be front and centre, write Naomi Delap, Katherine Miller Brunton, and Kate Metcalf

“. . . there is no more room for complacency. This is not a problem for the future, or for those in countries traditionally viewed as vulnerable to extreme weather. The effects of climate change on women’s health are being felt here in the UK, now.”—Ranee Thakar, president, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists1

The climate and biodiversity emergency poses severe challenges to reproductive, maternal, infant, and child health. We are already seeing the substantial effects that air pollution,23 toxic chemicals,456 extreme heat,78 climate migration,91011 food insecurity,12 and other factors can have on our ability to conceive, sustain healthy pregnancies, and birth and parent our children in safety. We also know that women facing poverty, inequality, and disadvantage, and those from black and brown communities disproportionately bear the harms of these factors.38131415

The intersectional, rights based framework of reproductive justice will be extremely valuable as we explore how to tackle these deeply concerning trends and ensure that reproductive health and rights are included in the development of solutions to the climate emergency. Developed by black and indigenous women in the United States in the 1990s,16 reproductive justice centres around four core human rights: the right to bodily autonomy, the right to have children, the right not to have children, and the right to parent the children we have, with dignity, in safe and sustainable communities.16 Reproductive justice activists and thinkers across the world have long made explicit links between sexual and reproductive health and the environment,17 but this connection has been under-explored in the UK to date.

The right to have children is undermined in multiple ways by the climate emergency. Air pollution, extreme heat, and toxic chemicals, for example, affect both male and female fertility18192021 and increase rates of premature birth, low birth weight, stillbirth, and miscarriage.222 The climate emergency is also known to be increasing rates of poor fetal, infant, and child health, undermining parents’ rights to raise their children in safety. Extreme heat, for example, has been linked with kidney disease, asthma, and dehydration in very young children.23 An estimated 97% of UK schools are in areas exceeding World Health Organization limits on the most dangerous particulate matter, known to reduce life expectancy through heart and lung disease.24 In all these examples, exposure is inequitably distributed, with black and brown women and children, people living in poverty, and people working in poorly paid, unregulated workplaces disproportionately harmed.314152526

There continues to be a strong focus on “overpopulation” in parts of the environmental movement, primarily focused on low and middle income countries.17 This fixation places the blame for the climate emergency onto disadvantaged women—the very people who are most affected by it.17 Overpopulation narratives locate the solutions to the climate emergency in controlling women’s fertility, severely undermining their rights to bodily autonomy and to have children.

A reproductive justice approach focuses instead on structural solutions, such as reducing overconsumption and environmental extractivism, rather than seeking to control the reproductive lives of the most disadvantaged women.27 The framework creates an opportunity to explore the complex roots of issues to drive systemic change. Once reproductive justice principles are understood, supporting women’s wider empowerment and access to sexual and reproductive healthcare are among our most powerful tools to tackle the climate emergency.

This month, Birth Companions and Women’s Environmental Network (Wen) have published a paper examining the climate emergency as a reproductive justice issue.1 Using the framework of reproductive justice, this paper interrogates many of the specific challenges brought about by the climate emergency, to show the myriad ways in which it undermines our human rights and limits our abilities to conceive, sustain healthy pregnancies, and birth and parent children in safety and health in the UK today. In the paper, Birth Companions and Wen call for structural, gendered solutions to the climate emergency, as well as emphasise the current actions we can support as individuals, organisations, and sectors. This new paper forms part of the UK Feminist Green New Deal,28 a programme of work seeking to ensure gender, racial, and social equity are at the heart of plans to tackle the climate crisis in the UK.

Those of us who want to provide parents and babies with the best futures have a moral obligation and collective duty to act now to mitigate the damage of this crisis, which “threaten[s] the fundamentals of life as we know it.”1 Birth Companions and Wen will be working with partners in 2024 to put reproductive justice principles front and centre in policy and action to tackle the climate emergency in the UK.


Helen Lynn (Women’s Environmental Network) and Kirsty Kitchen (Birth Companions) contributed to the writing and revision of this article.

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