Why women's rights matter for the environment

Photo by Charles Henry

Texas women have suffered major setbacks to their reproductive health and rights this year.

At the federal level, the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision has made it more difficult for women to access their contraceptive method of choice. At the state level, the Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry have enacted new restrictions on clinics providing basic women’s health care and family planning services.

Of course, these decisions hurt Texas women and their families — but they also increase the risk of social, economic and environmental harm in our great state.

When women and their medical providers are prevented from making personal health care decisions, the negative consequences are far-reaching. A woman’s inability to control the number, timing and spacing of her children impacts her health, education and career. Moreover, the cumulative impact of women having more children than they desire strains public health systems and natural resources such as water, energy and healthy food.

When thinking of women who are unable to make choices about childbearing, we often think of those in less affluent countries than our own. This unmet need is real — more than 222 million women in the developing world have expressed a desire to make decisions about when to have children but face cultural, financial, geographic, religious or familial barriers to doing so. Yet this isn’t just a foreign issue. The United States actually has the highest unintended-pregnancy rate in the developed world. With the aforementioned restrictions now in place, consider the situation in Texas.

Fifty-two percent of all pregnancies in Texas are unplanned. On average, there are 825 unplanned and unintended pregnancies every day. Teen pregnancy rates in our state are the third highest in the country, with 73 pregnancies per 1,000 girls in 2010. The economic impact of these unmet health needs is staggering. In 2010, $1.1 billion of public funding was spent on teen childbearing alone.

Texas’ new restrictions on women’s basic human rights ensure that unplanned pregnancy rates in the state will continue to rise. At a time when our population is growing, our budgets and natural resources are strained, and extreme weather events associated with climate disruption impact our crops, waterways and infrastructure, we can’t afford not to meet women’s needs for voluntary, accessible reproductive health services like family planning.

Since 2010, the population in Texas has grown by more than 1.3 million people. Much of the state is suffering from a severe drought that has caused more than $7 billion in damage as of January 2013. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, 796 public water supply systems in Texas currently have mandatory water restrictions in place. An additional 390 systems have voluntary water restrictions in place. Restrictions in big cities such as San Antonio and Austin are now commonplace, and the likelihood of more frequent extreme weather events is higher.

The solutions to these diverse challenges are mutually reinforcing. Greater access to voluntary family planning and more funding for comprehensive sex education in Texas would result in smaller and healthier families, fewer teen pregnancies, lower health costs and less pressure on dwindling resources. A healthier environment benefits the health of women and families.

Two recent studies found that giving women more freedom to time their pregnancies would provide 8 to 15 percent of the carbon reductions needed to prevent further climate disruption. And the cost would be small — about $3.7 billion per year — compared with other ways of cutting emissions on a large scale.

Providing access to family planning education and services should be recognized by policymakers in Washington and Austin as an important piece of the puzzle to creating a more sustainable, just and thriving state. Meeting the family planning needs of women in Texas and around the globe is key to protecting the health of women, the health of the planet and the availability of resources for generations to come. And every child deserves to be a wanted child.

Keith K. Annis

Executive director of the Texas chapter of the Population Media Center


Scheleen Walker

Director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club