The overturning of Roe v. Wade in the United States in June of 2022 has had serious implications in terms of access to abortion. Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) has been a major topic of discussion amid the devastating decision.
This landmark ruling sheds light not only on the dire circumstances in the US. It has also brought many of us in different parts of the world to a point of reckoning. Some questions we find ourselves asking: what does it mean to have bodily autonomy? What would the world look like if we were to achieve that, and what steps do we have to take to make it a reality? What other issues need to be addressed on our journey forward? How is SRHR linked to other problems around the globe?
There are so many facets of our oppressive structures that need to be rebuilt, and many of them are interconnected. This includes racism and poverty, among others. One of the most pressing concerns of our time, the climate crisis, is both impacted by, and directly impacts, these systems.
We spoke with Catherine Abreu, founder and director of Destination Zero, to discuss the ways in which sexual and reproductive health and rights are connected to climate justice, and why we need to start thinking about both from a fresh, imaginative perspective.
When it comes to climate change, women and girls around the world are on the frontlines. As Abreu says, they often act as “primary caregivers and household providers. They are the first to go thirsty in drought and hungry in famine. They are also disproportionately impacted by conflict arising from climate change-related pressures.”
Natural disasters increase the likelihood of conflict and violence, and this inordinately affects women and girls, posing tremendous risks to their bodily autonomy and their SRHR.
Abreu tells us that working towards climate justice not only protects the most vulnerable, but it also ensures that these people can in turn join the mission toward creating a healthier planet.
“Centring gender equity, including safeguarding SRHR and access to sexual health services, works to ensure climate policies protect and respond to the needs of those most impacted by climate change,” she says.
“Perhaps more importantly, protecting the rights of women and girls lifts up and unlocks some of the world’s most powerful agents of climate action.”
When vulnerable people are stripped of their rights, specifically the rights to make decisions about their own bodies, their voices are suppressed and their inherent potential to lead full lives is put in jeopardy. Access to abortion is part of being human. It allows people to make the decisions they need to lead happy lives and make positive impacts.
To make sense of where harmful policies on reproductive health (in relation to climate change) come from, Abreu suggests we look at the way Western civilization tends to view feminized bodies. She has had the privilege of learning a lot on this topic from the teachings of Indigenous leaders in North America.
“They [Indigenous leaders] so often make a direct connection between the kinds of violence that the earth is experiencing amidst a series of ecological crises, including climate change and the collapse of biodiversity, the kind of violence the earth is being subject to, and the violence that is disproportionately being inflicted on women,” Abreu says.
“From many Indigenous worldviews, there’s a very apparent connection there. There’s a direct link between the disrespect being paid to our giving planet—our caring, nurturing planet—and caring, nurturing women who often have those caretaking roles in our communities.”
We tend to think of the Earth as a series of natural resources that are there to be plundered, for our profit and gain, no matter what (Abreu calls this “extractivism”). There is a clear link between this and the way many politicians and leaders think of our bodies: like they are part of a political or religious agenda and can be used and discussed without our consent.
The most marginalized among us experience these impacts to a higher degree. For example, Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour are disproportionately affected by decisions like the overturning of Roe v. Wade, as well as climate inaction.
Patriarchy and misogyny dominate our Western socio-geographic worldview. One way to address these attitudes and the aggressive interventions that hurt our bodies and our planet is through community care and collaboration
Abreu says hope resides among “atypical” people, essentially those who don’t fit in, for whatever reason, to the fabricated norm of our society. They are often the most imaginative and community oriented.
“Those are the people who often have to plumb the depths of their emotional intelligence to simply survive. People who have to find creative ways of making it in the world, whether from a practical resource standpoint because their marginalization comes with a socioeconomic marginalization…but also from a cultural standpoint, people who have to figure out how to become comfortable, how to live and express their humanity in a culture that questions and undermines their identity, and it’s that kind of creativity, that kind of perseverance, that kind of tenacity, that kind of imagination, that we need to posit viable alternatives to the status quo, because that status quo isn’t working for anybody.
In that way, those of us most impacted by decisions like Roe v. Wade and climate change have a different kind of power—the ability to think outside the box.
As Abreu says, this means thinking beyond the language of violence, and adopting a language of love.
“Diversity of perspective means a different way of thinking and acting and being in the world. This lends itself more viably to thinking about alternative ways of being on this planet in general. We often hear the effort to confront climate change as a fight, a battle, a war, and sometimes those terms do feel applicable, but more so, this is a moment of reckoning, a moment of us needing to come to terms with what it is we value as a species, what it is we love as a species, what it is that we want to take care of. If we can pivot from that narrative of war and conflict to a narrative of love and mutual care, then we go such a long way to being in the kind of emotional, soulful place that we need.”
This includes prioritizing feminist leadership, leadership that is about centering collaboration and feeling and heart. Leadership that confronts the patriarchy, that takes the power away from those who use it to hurt our Earth and each other. It’s going to take a whole lot of love and a whole lot of heart to face our most serious global problems: whether that be climate change or human rights. By embracing the interconnectedness of these issues, we take a step towards standing in our power, and making the world a more equitable place.