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For many people in the city of Baytown in Texas, the overturning of Roe V. Wade has left them with not many options, and not just in terms of seeking reproductive healthcare like abortion. The town sits on the eastern edge of Harris County. Abutting the San Jacinto River, the city is a known pollution hotspot. If you’re a woman, you know that keeping yourself and your developing fetus safe from exposure to toxic substances is a real challenge. Pregnant women in Baytown now, along with toxic pollution, also have to overcome the challenge that the abortion ban poses to them. So let us understand how overturning Roe V Wade will affect pregnant women in pollution hotspots.
Baytown’s high pollution levels are because of the dense concentration of chemical facilities in the town. These facilities include an ExxonMobil refinery. The plant regularly spews out toxic chemicals and caught fire in 2021. The city is also home to a Superfund site notorious for leaks. Superfund is a Congress-set-up trust fund for handling hazardous and emergency wastes. Baytown’s Superfund site sits in the middle of the San Jacinto River. It pollutes the water and harms aquatic life, reducing the town’s access to healthy seafood.
Harris County’s petrochemical facilities regularly spew out chemicals like toluene, benzene, and xylene. These substances can affect the human body’s development and reproductive systems. While exposure to toxic substances isn’t good for anyone, children and pregnant women are the most at risk. Even low levels of exposure can significantly make children sick because their bodies are smaller and still developing. Likewise, hormonal and physical changes in pregnant people’s bodies make them vulnerable to pollution. Research has shown that people living closer to pollution, whether from power plants or road traffic, suffer worse maternal outcomes than those living further away. Pregnant people living near pollution hotspots are more likely to develop hypertension, give birth early, and have babies with low birth weights. Even pregnancy itself can be dangerous in the presence of pollution and the absence of proper care. Conditions like maternal haemorrhage and preeclampsia can potentially result in the mother’s disability, sometimes even death.
Maternal morbidity describes unexpected outcomes at the time of labour and delivery that can lead to significant health consequences. Due to high pollution levels, maternal morbidity rates in parts of Baytown are almost double the state average. In 2018, researchers at the University of Texas in Austin discovered that the average morbidity rate in Texas is around 17 per 1,000 deliveries. But, in Baytown, morbidity rates are as high as 31 per 1,000 deliveries. Morbidity rates in Texas are even higher for people of colour.
The lack of access to abortion care will increase the intensity of these serious and fatal cases. For almost 50 years, US law gave women access to abortion. The overturning of that ruling will now allow states to decide whether abortion is legal within their borders. About 25 states in the US are set to ban abortions. Many of these states belong to the Gulf Coast and the South of the country. Coloured communities in these states already face disproportionate environmental and climate burdens. These are the same states where people have limited access to healthcare and family planning services, where uninsured populations are high, and where safe maternal outcomes are lacking.
Being a person of colour, having a low income, having lower access to healthcare, and living near a polluting site have adverse effects on pregnancy. Texas is one of 13 states in the US that has ‘trigger laws’. These trigger laws automatically banned abortion as soon as the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade. That means if you’re a citizen of Baytown seeking an abortion, you will have to travel out of the state. Since almost all states bordering Texas also have trigger laws, you will have to travel a significant distance to get an abortion. The price of getting abortions out of the state (including lodging, travel, and lost wages) amounts to thousands of dollars. One patient who had to seek an abortion due to complications in the second trimester ended up incurring costs of over 14,000 dollars.
There is another issue with the abortion laws. Legally banning abortion does not effectively end its practice. It simply limits the number of people that will be able to get them. People who have the freedom and financial means to travel, cover medical costs, and take time off work will always get an abortion if they want to. Those who don’t have the freedom and finances will not be able to get one.
Many studies have shown that people living in the immediate vicinity of pollution hotspots tend to be of lower income and people of colour, populations that will most likely need abortions in the first place. The Guttmacher Institute found that 75% of people seeking an abortion are poor or low-income, and 61% are coloured people.
In Baytown, the average household income is 54,000 dollars. This value is lower than both the average income of Texas and the national average income. 17% of households in Baytown live under the poverty line.
The overturning Roe V Wade will affect pregnant women in pollution hotspots to get an abortion. We’ve read that pollution can cause serious complications during pregnancy. But now, with the abortion ban, women will be forced to carry their pregnancy till the end. This puts both the health of the baby and the mother at risk and can prove to be fatal. Additionally, climate change impacts such as heatwaves and floods affect pregnant people more severely than others. These extreme weather events can stress the developing fetus and the mother’s body. Now, along with these impacts of a changing climate, women in the US have the additional burden of the abortion ban.