Shortly after the Supreme Court ended guaranteed abortion rights in the United States on Friday, Scott Pruitt, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Oklahoma, declared the ruling had delivered “JUSTICE for the Unborn!”
“Praise God! What an amazing step forward to protect the innocent,” Pruitt wrote in a tweet. “I will always fight for the unborn and the sanctity of life.”
However, the policies Pruitt fought for throughout his career ― especially during his short but tumultuous tenure as President Donald Trump’s first Environmental Protection Agency chief ― increased types of pollution linked to fetal defects and premature births.
By stymying efforts to reduce fossil fuel use, and actively promoting an increase in how much oil, gas and coal are burned by the world’s largest economy, Pruitt played a notable role in hastening the rate at which the planet’s temperature will rise, a shift expected to cause increasingly deadly storms, floods, fires and ultimately famines, wars and mass migrations.
But what’s perhaps less abstract, and more jarring, is how those same policies allowed an increase of tiny, invisible particles circulating in the air around drilling sites, highways and power plants.
While carbon dioxide travels skyward, microscopic bits of particulate matter lace the air and lodge in the lungs of the people who breathe it. Studies have linked exposure to that pollution with an almost jaw-dropping list of medical conditions, from the expected, like asthma, lung cancer and heart diseases, to the more surprising, such as dementia, schizophrenia and erectile dysfunction.
And research indicates that “the unborn” and the recently born pay a particularly high price.
About 20% of newborn deaths worldwide are the result of complications linked to air pollution exposure, according to the 2020 State of Global Air report.
The connection has long been understood. Between 2000 and 2005, federal scientists monitoring pregnancies in New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania found that exposure to fine particulate matter during both the earliest and final stages of pregnancy were “strongly associated” with premature birth.
Researchers in South Texas examined birth records between 2012 and 2015 and found a 50% higher chance of preterm birth among pregnant people living near oil and gas drilling sites with high rates of “flaring” ― a common practice where companies burn gas that is cheaper to lose than it is to collect.
A 2017 study examining the effects of shutting down nuclear power plants offered a clear indication of the electricity sector’s potential impacts. During a panic over atomic energy following the Three Mile Island accident in the 1980s, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the federally owned utility that generates a large share of power in the Southeastern U.S., switched to burning more coal. Following the subsequent surge in coal-linked air pollution, “infants born after the nuclear shutdown in the most affected areas had lower birth weight than the ones born in less affected places.”
In 2019 alone, “air pollution likely contributed to almost 6 million premature births and almost 3 million underweight babies,” according to a study published last year by the University of California, San Francisco.
Preterm birth and low birth weights were hardly the only risks.
A separate study conducted in Texas between 1997 and 2000 found that women exposed to air pollution commonly produced by burning fossil fuels during the third, seventh and eighth weeks of their pregnancy faced a higher risk of the baby developing heart defects.
Research from China backed up the findings, concluding in 2016 that exposure to that same kind of air pollution led to a higher risk of congenital heart defects, especially ventricular septal defect, where there is a hole in the wall separating the heart’s two lower chambers.
Pruitt’s regulations relaxing pollution standards for power plants and automobiles were all widely projected to increase the volumes of particulate matter in the air. But he sought to take that agenda further as EPA administrator, proposing to permanently limit what kinds of studies the agency’s staff could consider when writing future rules. His proposal explicitly aimed to give more weight to how much pollution limits would cost companies.
It wasn’t just air pollution. Pruitt proposed shifting oversight of the containment sites for toxic coal ash to state regulators that had smaller budgets and fewer resources to identify bad practices and actors. The proposal came just a few years after coal ash spilled at multiple sites across the Southeast, spreading carcinogenic pollutants.
Exposure to coal ash is linked to low birth weight and cancer in children. In a 2009 lawsuit, parents in the Dominican Republic whose babies were born with deformed skulls, missing limbs and missing organs blamed a coal ash pile in their community. The U.S. coal power company named in the litigation, Virginia-based AES Corp., ultimately settled.
Examples abound of conspicuous hypocrisy among those who fight to ban legal, safe abortions and restrict the millennia-old procedure to a black market where violence, rape and deadly makeshift methods go unchecked. The same political coalition calling for laws forcing women to carry a pregnancy to term has opposed efforts to provide the kinds of government programs available in most other capitalist democracies to make the medical services and child care needed after giving birth cheaper and more widely available. Those declaring themselves “pro-life” have largely supported the death penalty and prioritized the right of hobbyists to purchase firearms designed for killing soldiers on the battlefield over the right of schoolchildren not to have their bodies blown to bits by those weapons.
In that sense, the gap between Pruitt’s rhetoric and his record on the sanctity of fetal life seems unlikely, on its own, to harm his political prospects.