On Fertile Ground: The Environmental and Reproductive Justice Movements as a Unified Force for Reforming Toxic Chemical Regulation

Author:Angie McCarthy
Position:J.D. candidate, May 2013, at American University Washington College of Law
By Angie McCarthy*
The Environmental Justice (“EJ”) and Reproductive Jus-
tice (“RJ”) movements share important common ground:
They aim to improve socioeconomic conditions for those
living in poverty, increase involvement of traditionally marginal-
ized communities in policy decisions affecting them, and rec-
ognize the right of women to have healthy pregnancies and of
parents to raise healthy children.1 The time is ripe for the EJ and
RJ movements to collaborate2 and harness their joint potential to
effect policy reform and ensure that vulnerable women are not
exposed to toxic chemicals that harm their reproductive health.
In the United States, the Toxic Substance Control Act is
the primary law ensuring use of safe chemicals, 3 but a lack of
Congressional attention since 1976 has made it almost impos-
sible for the EPA to require testing or regulation of chemicals
based on their adverse health effects.4 This inaction’s effect is
highlighted in studies that show that people who live and work in
the most polluted environments in the United States are people
of color and the poor.5 Further, because women of color are
more likely than other Americans to be low-wage workers, they
are “disproportionately exposed to . . . hazardous chemicals [in
the workplace], including agricultural pesticides, home cleaning
products, industrial cleaning products, and chemicals used in
hair and nail salons.”6
Despite the clear links between toxic chemical exposure
and harm to reproductive health, reproductive rights organiza-
tions have traditionally ignored the EJ movement.7 Today, the
RJ movement’s expansion from a rights-based framework to a
broader justice-based framework provides RJ advocates a new
opportunity to join with EJ advocates. The new RJ framework
encompasses “the right to parent [children] in safe and healthy
environment[s] . . . [and] is based on the human right to make
personal decisions about one’s life, and [government and soci-
ety’s obligation] to ensure that . . . conditions are suitable for
implementing one’s decisions.”8 Similarly, the EJ movement
calls for “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all
people . . . with respect to the development, implementation, and
enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.9
The movements’ shared policy objectives and commitment
to community-based intervention creates the perfect atmosphere
for movement building and joint advocacy. To date there have
been several successful collaborations, including efforts to:
“regulate, disclose and eliminate toxic ingredients in consumer
products;”10 “expand chemical reform campaigns to include
workplace exposure;” 11 and integrate gender justice into climate
change policy analysis.12 For example, an EJ/RJ collaboration
in California yielded a successful education campaign on the
harmful impact of toxic chemicals used in nail salons on Asian
women’s reproductive health, which in turn led to legislative
By building on this momentum, EJ and RJ advocates have
the opportunity to come together to pass strong legislation
reforming outdated toxic chemicals regulations. Currently, two
such bills are pending before Congress: The Toxic Chemicals
Safety Act of 201014 and The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011.15
Both bills aim to improve reproductive health by requiring that
all chemicals meet a safety standard that will protect vulnerable
populations, including pregnant women and workers.16 They
also include provisions to reduce disproportionate toxic chemi-
cal exposure faced by people of color, low-income individuals,
and indigenous communities.17 RJ and EJ movements should
recognize this legislation’s contribution to their shared goals and
join in support of its passage. Doing so will move our govern-
ment and society a necessary step closer to recognizing the uni-
versal right of “every woman to bear and raise healthy children
and live in healthy communities.18
Endnotes: On Fertile Ground: The Environmental and Reproductive Justice
Movements as a Unified Force for Reforming Toxic Chemical Regulation
1 If You Really Care About Environmental Justice, You Should Care About
Reproductive Justice!, LAW STUDENTS FOR REPRODUCTIVE JUSTICE 1 (2012), http://
2 Executive Summary: Gender, Organizing, and Movement Building at the
Intersection of Environmental Justice and Reproductive Justice, MOVEMENT
STRATEGY CENTER 4 (2000), http://movementbuilding.movementstrategy.org/
3 15 U.S.C. § 2601 (1976).
* Angie is a J.D. candidate, May 2013, at American University Washington
College of Law.
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