The Story About the One

Pro-life and pro-choice can find common ground over toxicants

WHEN A WOMAN visits a gynecologist’s office, the receptionist hands her a pen, a clipboard, and a medical intake form. To fill it out, she finds a seat among the waiting room’s plastic plants and pregnant women and clicks open the ballpoint—which is imprinted with the name of a drug marketed by the company of the most recent pharmaceutical rep to visit the office.

Within the pages asking about health insurance group number, alcohol consumption, and habits regarding breast self-examination, are a series of questions about her reproductive history—

Number of live births:
Number of miscarriages:
Number of abortions:

Once she’s reached the end of her fertile years, as I have, the answers to these questions become fixed—like the N-P-K numbers on bags of fertilizer that disclose concentrations of nitrogen, phosphate, and potash.

My numbers are 2, 2, 1. This essay is about the one, and the story I have created to talk about it.


IN MY LIFE AS A PUBLIC SPEAKER, I am often asked to address the evidence linking chemical contamination and human health risks. Often these invitations come from environmental organizations, but sometimes they come from farming groups and sometimes from women’s health organizations. Thus, I have spoken before groups of Pennsylvania Mennonites, Michigan Calvinists, and Utah Mormons, as well as at meetings organized by Planned Parenthood. Whatever the venue, my story is much the same.

I begin by saying that I am the mother of two beloved children. But my first pregnancy did not result in parenthood. Instead, an early ultrasound showed that it was almost certainly not going to end happily. My husband and I faced a wrenching decision. After consulting with genetic counselors and the head of Harvard Medical School’s high-risk neonatology unit, we opted to end the pregnancy.

At this point, the audiences in my Planned Parenthood gatherings are nodding. They know this story. By contrast, the audiences in my farming communities are not moving, except for some rapid blinking. A few fold their arms across their chests.

If I’m speaking before a Planned Parenthood group, I’ll go on here to add that once Jeff and I decided to abort, we were on our own. Beth Israel referred us to the Planned Parenthood down the street. That would be the clinic that anti-abortion crusader John Salvi had shot up. And that is how I, a woman in my thirties with health insurance, a PhD, and a deep desire for a child, found myself leaving the hushed corner offices of Harvard’s flagship hospital to run a gauntlet of right-to-life protesters. At this point in my speech, I thank Planned Parenthood for their services and for the security guards that helped me gain access to them.

The PP audience is still nodding. They know this story, too. Prestigious obstetricians often eschew the act of terminating pregnancies. Which is why Planned Parenthood waiting rooms are always short on chairs.

To both audiences, I say that after this decision, my husband and I faced a second one. What were we going to tell our families? Religious devotion runs deep on my husband’s side of the family. Among my own extended family, who farm in central Illinois, are many members of the Apostolic Christian Church, an old-order denomination that hews to a strict interpretation of the Bible. These are the people I celebrate Thanksgiving with, who pray for me daily, with whom I converse about soil tilth. They include people active in the right-to-life movement.

Now my rural, red-state audiences are nodding, while the PP crowd freezes up and begins blinking.

I say that Jeff and I decided to speak truthfully. And then—I go on to describe—something amazing happened. One by one, women on both sides of the family called to tell me the story of their own (mostly illegal) abortions—and immediately swore me to secrecy. They included someone who was thirteen at the time, someone whose husband was mentally unstable at the time, and someone who contracted German measles. (The rubella virus is a potent birth defect–inducing pathogen.) They included stories about the hired girl—who might have been impregnated by her own father or maybe by a certain male adult on the farm.

These stories, I say from the podium, deepened my conviction that the ability to exert agency over one’s reproductive life is a basic human right. However—I go on to emphasize to my more conservative audiences—if you believe instead that unborn life is paramount, there is still a conversation we need to have with each other, and that is a conversation about chemicals that have the ability to enter a woman’s body and sabotage her pregnancy. Abortion means more than a Planned Parenthood clinic. It also refers to what we in the scientific community call “spontaneous abortions,” what women call miscarriages, the risks of which go up when certain chemical pollutants enter the opera of embryonic development at certain key moments.

To all my audiences, I lay out the evidence. Methoxychlor, a common pesticide, has the ability, at vanishingly small concentrations, to prevent embryonic implantation. So do certain solvents. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, an ingredient of air pollution, can kill eggs in the ovary. In California, the closer a woman lives to agricultural fields where pesticides are sprayed, the higher her risk of stillbirth due to birth defects. PCBs and DDT are linked to preterm birth, a leading cause of infant death and disability.

At this point, everyone is breathing again, and many are taking notes. To my pro-life audiences, I ask, “Are these not pro-life issues? Could our collective failure to regulate reproductive toxicants represent a threat to fetal sanctity?” To my other audience I ask, “Are these not pro-choice issues? Could our collective failure to regulate reproductive toxicants represent a threat to reproductive rights — the right to bear a child that one has carefully planned for?”

I have been pulled aside privately—usually when I am on my way to the restroom after the Q and A — to be told that I am naïve. That pro-life women frequently turn up in Planned Parenthood clinics for abortions—and then return to the barricades the next week as right-to-life zealots. That these people are so full of cognitive disconnects and self-exceptionalism that trying to persuade them is pointless. But that can’t be universally true. I myself once held right-to-life views as a teenager in a rural community and was persuaded otherwise during the Roe v. Wade debates of the 1970s.

Conversely, I’ve been accused—privately, while on the way to the restroom—of hypocrisy. Anyone who has had an abortion has forfeited the right to talk about fetal harm, asserted one large man, who was standing a little too close to me when he said it. But that doesn’t ring true either. I fervently wish for my daughter the right to determine her own reproductive path as well as the right to a pregnancy undisrupted by toxic chemicals. That feels like two sides of the same precious coin.

I have often wondered what it would be like to bring all my audiences, pro-choice and pro-life, into one great amphitheater to begin the environmental conversation I imagine. I could start with the sentence that is always an applause line no matter whom I am addressing: “Let’s agree that any chemical with the power to extinguish a human pregnancy has no rightful place in our economy.”

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream and several other books about climate change, ecology, and the links between human health and the environment. She was an Orion columnist for six years. Author photo: Laura Kozlowski.


  1. A good friend of mine passed this on, and there is so much about it that I love. It speaks to the truth of human experience. You detail how you tell or don’t tell to different audiences at different times, something so many women have to do. And you bring us back to what we have in common, across the political spectrum. I am going to send this to lots of people and hope they read it.

    In particular, I want to note the statement about the man who said women who have had abortions do not get to talk about fetal life. I founded and lead an organization called Exhale. We operate a national, multilingual post-abortion talkline. We are pro-voice. We hear from thousands of women and men every day and many of them have a lot to say about the fetus, or their baby, or the pregnancy (depending on what they chose to call it). What we offer them is nonjudgmental listening, a witness, comfort, and chance to be heard. Every person deserves this.

  2. Years ago, I read an article about people on both ‘sides’ of this issue meeting in secret to find common ground. Turned out they had these conversations at the Public Conversations Project, in Watertown, Massachusetts.
    Now this article sheds more light on how ‘not so black & white’ this issue really is. Thanks, Orion, for bringing it to my attention.

  3. Wonderful article; how quick we all are to judge other people’s hard choices. My question: why is the pro-life movement so full of these too in-your-face *men*? Sure, we men get a say, but stridently anti-abortion males often seem to me to be unreasonably threatened by the larger issue: women making decisions.

  4. This article is an excellent example of how to find common ground among those who strongly disagree, something we most definitely need to learn if we are to bring more people into the transformations that need to occur on so many levels. If people on both sides of the abortion issue can reach common ground then it seems to me that we should be able to do so on other, less contentious issues. Those on either side of the abortion issue mostly seem totally unable to have actual, respectful conversations. The only issue that even comes close in my experience, is veganism and meat eaters.

    And, yes, women who have had an abortion absolutely do get to talk about fetal life. I know plenty of women who have had both an abortion and a baby, or babies. No one understands fetal life more than someone who has experienced both.

  5. I would like to thank Sandra Steingraber for her profound and eloquent contribution to the environmental movement; for making concerns about toxic assault accessible and understandable to such a wide a variable audience. Respect for human life at all ages is a value that spans almost all political and social groups.

  6. I just want to highlight this comment from Susan Meeker-Lowry because it is exactly right and it is the essence of pro-voice:

    “And, yes, women who have had an abortion absolutely do get to talk about fetal life. I know plenty of women who have had both an abortion and a baby, or babies. No one understands fetal life more than someone who has experienced both.”

  7. I am very familiar with Sandra’s work, but this moved me profoundly, especially the end. I do not have children, and only recently became an aunt (thus creating a genetic link to the future, in coldly evolutionary terms, that I never had before), but I have worried for decades about the stew of chemicals and radiation in which all fetuses (human and not) bathe. All the “black magic” that comes out of research labs should be deemed guilty until proven innocent – not the reverse, which is the case now. What chance do environmentally aware people like us have of alerting the world to endangered frogs or abused chimps if we cannot even extend the most basic protection to our own species at its most vulnerable stage of development? Thanks, Sandra, for more of your usual insight – and a very strong rhetorical slant that provokes discussion.

  8. Finding common ground is always a good place o start. However, it is important, I believe, that common ground focus on the cause and not the consequence. Sandra wrapped this article up nicely by addressing an important issue that focuses on the cause of what in turn becomes difficult decision.

  9. Thank you for your candid and thought provoking article. Mother of five, I had a midterm miscarriage in the 1980s, along with five other local women. The cause was never determined but I never stopped wondering about environmental factors. Changing the kitty litter? Low blood sugar? Endocrine disruptors? The point is that the environment does affect the mother and her yet to be born child. It is paramount that we continue to keep the earth a good place to propagate our species.

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