'PROTECTORS' OF UNBORN PUT THEM IN PERIL
By Joni Seager
April 7, 2004
LAST WEEK, President Bush signed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, a bill that creates a separate federal offense if bodily injury or death of a "child in utero" occurs during the commission of certain crimes.
This new federal law recognizes everything from a zygote to a fetus as an independent "victim," with legal protection distinct from the pregnant woman who has been harmed.
At the signing, Mr. Bush declared proudly that "with this action ... we reaffirm that the United States of America is building a culture of life."
Critics of this law argue that it is a cynical assault on women's reproductive rights. But if we take the Bush administration's commitment to protect "unborn innocents" on its own narrow terms, we might expect a genuinely fetus-friendly White House to be fierce in its efforts to stamp out other well-known threats to the "unborn" -- such as mercury pollution.
All scientific experts agree that exposure to mercury is especially toxic to fetuses and children. Like lead, mercury is a highly toxic heavy metal that can cause brain damage and learning disabilities, and often causes irreversible neurological damage. Coal-burning power plants are the single biggest human-made source of mercury pollution in the United States. The technology and the regulatory framework for reducing mercury emissions from power plants are easily at hand.
It is hard, then, to reconcile Mr. Bush's professions of concern about fetal health with his new regulations that dramatically weaken limits on mercury pollution from power plants.
In January, the Bush administration proposed regulations that postpone controls for mercury until 2018 and could delay any significant emissions reductions beyond 2030 by allowing power plants to "trade" and "bank" their rights to emit mercury pollution. At best, the Environmental Protection Agency's proposal would reduce mercury emissions by 30 percent over the next 15 years -- a sharp retreat from previous proposals to decrease emissions by 90 percent within the next three years.
The Bush administration cut and pasted entire portions of its mercury proposal from industry recommendations submitted to the EPA by a trade association representing two dozen large utility companies.
Perhaps even more embarrassing to the White House, the day before the EPA unveiled its proposal to weaken limits on mercury pollution, its own Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee urged the EPA to reconsider the plan, warning that the mercury regulations did not adequately protect children's health.
And the attorneys general of 10 states recently sent a letter saying that the regulations did not adequately address the very real threat to health, particularly children's health, posed by mercury emissions.
These efforts to undermine the control of mercury pollution are not the only threat to fetuses emanating from the Bush White House.
The administration is pushing legislation to undercut domestic implementation of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. POPs include pesticides, waste by-products such as dioxins, and industrial chemicals used in a wide range of household goods, including flame retardants and paints. Current Bush proposals would make it more difficult, not less, to regulate new POPs as they are identified, and would allow the EPA to ignore treaty decisions when evaluating the safety of new POPs. No less a fetus-friendly group than the March of Dimes warns that "high levels of exposure to pesticides may contribute to miscarriage, preterm delivery and birth defects ... and may affect development of the fetus' reproductive system."
Then there is the matter of the Bush administration stacking Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Lead Advisory Committee with lead industry allies and representatives. Lead, too, poses a particular hazard to pregnant women and children.
The Bush administration also has attempted to exempt the U.S. agricultural industry from international restrictions on methyl bromide, an ozone-depleting pesticide.
The White House's record of unremitting environmental subversion, and the craven silence about this from the "friends of the fetus" on the anti-abortion right, suggest a deep deficit of sincerity about fetal health, as well as a disregard for women's rights and a cunning strategy to distract attention from policies that endanger everyone's health.
Joni Seager is a professor of geography and women's studies at the University of Vermont and director of the Center for New Words in Cambridge, Mass.
Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun