The Story About the One

July 15th, 2009

Pro-life and pro-choice can find common ground over toxicants

by Sandra Steingraber
Published in the July/August 2009 issue of Orion magazine


WHEN A WOMAN visits a gynecologist’s office, the receptionist hands her a pen, a clipboard, and a medical intake form. To fill it out, she finds a seat among the waiting room’s plastic plants and pregnant women and clicks open the ballpoint—which is imprinted with the name of a drug marketed by the company of the most recent pharmaceutical rep to visit the office.

Within the pages asking about health insurance group number, alcohol consumption, and habits regarding breast self-examination, are a series of questions about her reproductive history—
Number of live births:
Number of miscarriages:
Number of abortions:

Once she’s reached the end of her fertile years, as I have, the answers to these questions become fixed—like the N-P-K numbers on bags of fertilizer that disclose concentrations of nitrogen, phosphate, and potash.

My numbers are 2, 2, 1. This essay is about the one, and the story I have created to talk about it.

IN MY LIFE AS A PUBLIC SPEAKER, I am often asked to address the evidence linking chemical contamination and human health risks. Often these invitations come from environmental organizations, but sometimes they come from farming groups and sometimes from women’s health organizations. Thus, I have spoken before groups of Pennsylvania Mennonites, Michigan Calvinists, and Utah Mormons, as well as at meetings organized by Planned Parenthood. Whatever the venue, my story is much the same.

I begin by saying that I am the mother of two beloved children. But my first pregnancy did not result in parenthood. Instead, an early ultrasound showed that it was almost certainly not going to end happily. My husband and I faced a wrenching decision. After consulting with genetic counselors and the head of Harvard Medical School’s high-risk neonatology unit, we opted to end the pregnancy.

At this point, the audiences in my Planned Parenthood gatherings are nodding. They know this story. By contrast, the audiences in my farming communities are not moving, except for some rapid blinking. A few fold their arms across their chests.

If I’m speaking before a Planned Parenthood group, I’ll go on here to add that once Jeff and I decided to abort, we were on our own. Beth Israel referred us to the Planned Parenthood down the street. That would be the clinic that anti-abortion crusader John Salvi had shot up. And that is how I, a woman in my thirties with health insurance, a PhD, and a deep desire for a child, found myself leaving the hushed corner offices of Harvard’s flagship hospital to run a gauntlet of right-to-life protesters. At this point in my speech, I thank Planned Parenthood for their services and for the security guards that helped me gain access to them.

The PP audience is still nodding. They know this story, too. Prestigious obstetricians often eschew the act of terminating pregnancies. Which is why Planned Parenthood waiting rooms are always short on chairs.

To both audiences, I say that after this decision, my husband and I faced a second one. What were we going to tell our families? Religious devotion runs deep on my husband’s side of the family. Among my own extended family, who farm in central Illinois, are many members of the Apostolic Christian Church, an old-order denomination that hews to a strict interpretation of the Bible. These are the people I celebrate Thanksgiving with, who pray for me daily, with whom I converse about soil tilth. They include people active in the right-to-life movement.

Now my rural, red-state audiences are nodding, while the PP crowd freezes up and begins blinking.

I say that Jeff and I decided to speak truthfully. And then—I go on to describe—something amazing happened. One by one, women on both sides of the family called to tell me the story of their own (mostly illegal) abortions—and immediately swore me to secrecy. They included someone who was thirteen at the time, someone whose husband was mentally unstable at the time, and someone who contracted German measles. (The rubella virus is a potent birth defect–inducing pathogen.) They included stories about the hired girl—who might have been impregnated by her own father or maybe by a certain male adult on the farm.

These stories, I say from the podium, deepened my conviction that the ability to exert agency over one’s reproductive life is a basic human right. However—I go on to emphasize to my more conservative audiences—if you believe instead that unborn life is paramount, there is still a conversation we need to have with each other, and that is a conversation about chemicals that have the ability to enter a woman’s body and sabotage her pregnancy. Abortion means more than a Planned Parenthood clinic. It also refers to what we in the scientific community call “spontaneous abortions,” what women call miscarriages, the risks of which go up when certain chemical pollutants enter the opera of embryonic development at certain key moments.

To all my audiences, I lay out the evidence. Methoxychlor, a common pesticide, has the ability, at vanishingly small concentrations, to prevent embryonic implantation. So do certain solvents. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, an ingredient of air pollution, can kill eggs in the ovary. In California, the closer a woman lives to agricultural fields where pesticides are sprayed, the higher her risk of stillbirth due to birth defects. PCBs and DDT are linked to preterm birth, a leading cause of infant death and disability.

At this point, everyone is breathing again, and many are taking notes. To my pro-life audiences, I ask, “Are these not pro-life issues? Could our collective failure to regulate reproductive toxicants represent a threat to fetal sanctity?” To my other audience I ask, “Are these not pro-choice issues? Could our collective failure to regulate reproductive toxicants represent a threat to reproductive rights—the right to bear a child that one has carefully planned for?”

I have been pulled aside privately—usually when I am on my way to the restroom after the Q and A—to be told that I am naïve. That pro-life women frequently turn up in Planned Parenthood clinics for abortions—and then return to the barricades the next week as right-to-life zealots. That these people are so full of cognitive disconnects and self-exceptionalism that trying to persuade them is pointless. But that can’t be universally true. I myself once held right-to-life views as a teenager in a rural community and was persuaded otherwise during the Roe v. Wade debates of the 1970s.

Conversely, I’ve been accused—privately, while on the way to the restroom—of hypocrisy. Anyone who has had an abortion has forfeited the right to talk about fetal harm, asserted one large man, who was standing a little too close to me when he said it. But that doesn’t ring true either. I fervently wish for my daughter the right to determine her own reproductive path as well as the right to a pregnancy undisrupted by toxic chemicals. That feels like two sides of the same precious coin.

I have often wondered what it would be like to bring all my audiences, pro-choice and pro-life, into one great amphitheater to begin the environmental conversation I imagine. I could start with the sentence that is always an applause line no matter whom I am addressing: “Let’s agree that any chemical with the power to extinguish a human pregnancy has no rightful place in our economy.”