Fetal Rights: The Right to Life Case Against Air Pollution

BY ON July 13, 2011

Fetuses’ and infants’ brains are especially vulnerable to methylmercury poisoning. Coal plants are the biggest emitters of mercury, which is released when coal is burned. Texas, where my first son was born, is home to seven of the worst plants in the entire country. Seven of the most polluting plants are located within fifty to a hundred miles of Houston, Dallas, and Austin. Asthma rates there are skyrocketing. So is mercury contamination.

Texas is also home to the oldest, largest, statewide pro-life organization in the country. Several weeks ago I visited the Texas Right to Life website because I wondered about that powerful organization’s point of view on mercury pollution and unborn babies. After all, mercury poisoning threatens fetal brain development, harming a child’s potential to live a full, healthy life.

This is from their website:

The members, directors, staff, and affiliated local chapters of Texas Right to Life seek to articulate and protect the Right to Life of defenseless human beings, born and unborn, through legal, peaceful, and prayerful means.  This commitment is derived from a belief that each human being, from the moment of fertilization until natural death, has an immeasurable dignity and inalienable Right to Life.

Reading through the website, and forcing myself to remain agnostic on abortion issues, I began to wonder: Why wasn’t this powerful organization addressing fetal health issues? Why wasn’t it involved in fighting controllable things that harm unborn children–like air pollution

Recently, and thankfully, and miraculously, the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference announced that it welcomed the new EPA standards to reduce hazardous emissions of mercury and air toxics. The bishops cited “the need to protect human life and dignity at all stages.”

The Bishops are at the forefront of building a case for the moral imperative to end air pollution. It has been greeted with praise by many practicing Catholics: my colleague Elisa Batista recently wrote movingly about it.

At the same time, there’s a growing drumbeat around a run for the Presidency by Republican Governor Rick Perry, whose website declares the “pro-life community solidly behind Perry.”

The governor prides himself on having implemented “a number of significant reforms to protect life and strengthen Texas families.”

So why are polluters still allowed to foul Texas air?

I keep coming back to this language from the Right to Life mission: “defenseless human beings.”

If Perry really does stand behind protecting Texans’ lives, he, too, should join the Bishops in protecting defenseless human beings: our babies. He should join in supporting the reinforcement of cleaning up the emissions from the power plants. Stopping the poisoning of fetuses.

I hope–and I know that I am joined by many who pray for this–that for the sake of Texas’ children, born and unborn, religious organizations will harness their powerful political force to fight against coal-plant pollution. We have the technology to cut those poisons.

It is immoral not to use it.


Such standards should protect the health and welfare of all people, especially the most vulnerable members of our society, including unborn and other young children, from harmful exposure to toxic air pollution emitted from power plants,” said Bishop Stephen Blaire, who is the chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

Bishop Blaire cited Catholic teaching on the protection of the environment and the need to protect human life and dignity at all stages. “Children, inside and outside the womb, are uniquely vulnerable to environmental hazards and exposure to toxic pollutants in the environment,” he said. “Their bodies, behaviors and size leave them more exposed than adults to such health hazards. Furthermore, since children are exposed to environmental hazards at an early age, they have more extended time to develop slowly-progressing environmentally triggered illnesses.

Bishop Blaire also urged the EPA to take steps to not disproportionally impact the poor and vulnerable in the implementation of this rule. He noted that “[w]hile there are short-term costs involved in implementing this standard, the health benefits of such a rule outweigh these costs.”

The Domestic Justice Committee chairman stressed the urgency of acting on this health and environment priority. He called upon “leaders in government and industry to act responsibly, justly and rapidly to implement such a standard” to significantly reduce toxic air pollution.

Full text of Bishop Blaire’s comment is available online: http://www.usccb.org/ogc/2011-usccb-letter-to-lisa-jackson.pdf.

In a similar letter to the EPA, the Catholic Health Association of the United States (CHA) also expressed support for mercury and air toxics standards to reduce harmful pollution and its health effects. The CHA’s letter is posted on their website as well.

TOPICS: Coal, Latino Community, Mercury Poisoning, Politics, Pollution, Religion