Senior Researcher, Women’s Rights Division Human Rights Watch
Around the world, the climate crisis is hurting pregnancy health and widening the inequalities around who has a healthy baby.
A growing body of science from around the world links pregnant people’s exposure to higher temperatures to poor birth outcomes and maternal health.
Effect of hot temperatures
Rising heat caused by the climate crisis may not seem to be a reproductive health and rights issue, but it is. A growing number of studies indicate that exposure to extreme heat during pregnancy is associated with higher rates of low birth weight, premature birth and stillbirth.
Other studies also suggest links between hot temperatures and poor maternal health. Heat exposure seems to increase the chances of dangerous complications like gestational diabetes — which develops during pregnancy — and maternal hypertensive diseases including preeclampsia, which, if untreated, can lead to complications or even death for both the pregnant person and the developing foetus.
Who is at risk?
Extreme heat will also affect people with fewer financial resources the most, including communities already dealing with higher rates of prematurity and poor maternal health.
In the UK, most homes are not air-conditioned. Rising energy costs mean some pregnant people may not be able to buy — and run — a portable air conditioner.
In the US, because of historical and current racism and discrimination, communities of colour often live in hotter, more marginalised neighbourhoods. Another consequence of injustices is a maternal health crisis that leaves Black women with much worse pregnancy outcomes than white women. The climate crisis threatens to deepen it.
Rising energy costs mean some
pregnant people may not be able to buy —
and run — a portable air conditioner.
In Pakistan, pregnant people last year faced searing temperatures along with other climate disasters, including catastrophic flooding from heavy monsoons. Low birth weight and preterm birth rates — both of which leave newborns with a much higher risk of dying — are very high in Pakistan, even compared to other low-income countries. Communities cannot afford additional pressures on pregnancy health.
Education and services
Harmful impacts on maternal health are another reason governments should cut carbon emissions. Educating people — birth workers, doctors and the public — about the effects of extreme heat on pregnancy and newborns is also important.
Community birth workers who visit and provide information and connect pregnant women with services, serve on the front lines of this crisis. Better funding and training for community birth workers, whether in the UK, US, Pakistan or elsewhere, should be a top priority.