Get Ready for Earth Day of Action on Reproductive Health and the Environment

Get Ready for Earth Day of Action on Reproductive Health and the Environment

via Reproductive Health Technologies Project

In an effort to show links between reproductive justice and environmental justice, the Reproductive Health Technologies Project (RHTP)  is “calling all young people” to check out a presentation on “Sex, Synthetics, and Sustainability,” on April 10 at 4:30 EST. The presentation will feature representatives from the Sierra Club Global Population & Environment Program, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive HealthWomen’s Voices for the Earth, and special guest Stefanie Weiss, author of Eco-Sex: Go Green Between the Sheets and Make Your Love Life Sustainable.

Earthday 1970

Now, as I’ve written elsewhere, this isn’t the first time that birth control activists have reached out to young people by appealing to their interest in protecting the environment. During the late 1960s, Planned Parenthood’s Program of Student Community Action built alliances with the Sierra Club and other environmental groups that were beginning to appear on college campuses at this time. The group Zero Population Growth (ZPG), founded by Stanford University biology professor Paul Ehrlich (author of the best-seller The Population Bomb) and other scientists concerned about the “catastrophic impacts of ever more human beings on the biosphere,” sponsored “teach-ins” for college students in April of 1969, which led to the creation of dozens of ZPG college chapters around the country.The first Earth Day celebration in the United States, held April 22, 1970, made U.S. population limitation a major theme.

At this time, students began writing self-help books on sex and birth control, many of which were prompted by  ecological concerns. For example, during Earth Week in April 1970, students at Duke University compiled and distributed “A Guide to Contraception and Abortion.” The University of North Carolina publication “Elephants and Butterflies” was likewise sponsored in part by the student conservation group ECOS. Ecology groups at other campuses soon followed this example.

McGill bc handbook
McGill birth control handbook

Yet the alliance between birth control advocates and the mainstream population movement of the era was an uneasy one. Officials at Planned Parenthood Federation of America were especially cautious about the appeal of ZPG on college campuses. The director of Planned Parenthood’s Student Community Action Program, Dan Pellegrom, said he had “personal problems” with ZPG, “one, because their rhetoric could be taken by the black communities as genocidal and two, because they seem to be often politically inept.” The Birth Control Handbook (left), created by students at McGill University and financed by students at Princeton and the University of Maine, were even more strident in their condemnation of ZPG, which they referred to as right-wing, eugenicist organization that used birth control as a weapon against the non-white peoples of the world.

Not all students were this militant, but many took issue with the bigotry of the population “establishment.” James Trussell, a student at Davidson College in North Carolina, observed, “When all the programs are aimed toward the poor blacks, it’s not difficult to understand why some of them think that family planning is an attempt at genocide.” He added, “there just aren’t enough poor people to cause that big of a population problem . . . these programs have to reach the middle class as well, and every college student should be aware of the fact that his third child is going to expand the problem.”

Planned Parenthood leaders recognized enlisting the support of black students was essential in establishing the legitimacy of birth control among the African American community both on and off campus and eagerly encouraged participation by African-American students in the Student Community Action Program.

The “Sex, Synthetics, and Sustainability” presentation, therefore, promises to contribute to this longer effort to undercut the racism and elitism of the mainstream population movement. Their promotional material indicates that they support universal access to voluntary family planning as well as equitable access to education, economic opportunity, and a health environment.

Stephanie Weiss tells readers, “don’t go blaming women in the third world for the ravages of climate change.” It’s those in the global North who use most of the world’s resources.  The carbon footprint of that extra child, she says, will “take away your gold star for being the most eco-conscious person on the block.”

This book is an entertaining read, but I have some concerns about Weiss’ discussion of birth control methods, especially her exaggerated warnings about the impact of hormonal contraceptives on the environment.  (The American Life League also makes this argument, claiming the Pill “kills the environment” along with endangering women and “preborn” children). RHReality Check  wrote the following in response the American Life League’s charges a couple of years ago,

Stephen Colbert talking about intersex fish and “ladypee” filled with birth control hormones may get hits on YouTube—but it does not accurately describe the state of the science. The estrogen found in birth control pills, patches, and rings (known as EE2) is only one of thousands of synthetic estrogens that may be found in our water, and the contribution of EE2 to the total presence of estrogen in water is relatively small. The other sources of synthetic estrogens in our water include industrial chemicals commonly used in manufacturing (like BPA), synthetic estrogens in fertilizer spread over crops, and the synthetic estrogens pumped into livestock, including dairy cows, who are fed hormones to increase milk production. . . Demonizing birth control will do nothing to improve our environment or reproductive health outcomes. Yes—we continue to need research and development of safe, effective and environmentally-sound contraceptives, but we also need better water treatment, regulation of farm runoff, and common-sense limits on the use of toxic chemicals in the manufacture of products we use every day.”

Hopefully, the “Sex, Synthetics, and Sustainability” presentation will include information from the RHTP’s fact sheet on this issue.

If you’re interested, you can attend in person in Washington, DC, or you can go to this link and watch it stream live on Youtube. Also, make sure to sign up for RHTP’s Earth Day of Action campaign:

 Featured image caption: Reproductive Rights Protest. Flickr

Heather Munro Prescott is Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University. She is the author of The Morning-After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.