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Where Is the EPA’s Respect for the ‘Unborn’?

Faye Flam

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump and his administration have undermined their very vocal support of the “unborn” by canceling the primary source of funding for studies monitoring the prenatal and postnatal effects of pollution on children. 

From the start of his presidency, Trump has appealed to pro-life evangelicals with his tough-on-abortion Supreme Court appointments and anti-abortion rhetoric. His public stance has encouraged extreme state restrictions, such as those adopted in Alabama, which essentially outlaws abortion, and Missouri, where abortions may be unavailable as soon as this week.

 Here is what Trump said at the March for Life rally in 2018, as quoted in The Washington Post: “The March for Life is a movement born out of love. You love your families, you love your neighbors, you love our nation, and you love every child born and unborn, because you believe that every life is sacred, that every child is a precious gift from God.”

Meanwhile, scientific evidence grows that exposure to lead, arsenic, pesticides, various air pollutants or so-called endocrine disruptors before birth can adversely affect fetuses and cause problems that last a lifetime, said Rebecca Fry, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

As the journal Nature reported, the Environmental Protection Agency under Trump will discontinue funding for a longstanding fetal and childhood health-monitoring program that encompasses 13 facilities, including Columbia University, Dartmouth, UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois. About half the funding comes from the EPA, while the other half comes from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health. Scientists involved in this research say the NIH funding is not enough to continue to support many branches of the project, which spans the fields of epidemiology, toxicology and brain development.

Fry called the cancellation of EPA funding for these studies a travesty. “EPA funds are really central to the support of NIEHS children’s health studies,” she said. The projects that are EPA funded are providing a foundation for other work, so she suspects losing this part of the funding will have a devastating effect on the entire field.

One project, run through Columbia University, is measuring air pollution in homes before a child is born, then urine and blood samples from the child after birth. That’s allowing researchers to track health effects of various pollutants over many years. One conclusion they reached was that prenatal exposure to the pesticide chlorpyrifos, sometimes used indoors to control roaches, might have an adverse effect on brain development.

I’m not the first person to juxtapose opposition to abortion and protecting fetuses from pollution. Some years ago, I interviewed Swarthmore College developmental biology professor Scott Gilbert, who had been invited to a meeting at the Vatican in 2007 to discuss the concept of human life and when in development it begins. After he returned, he told me that he asserted there that science did not support the Catholic belief that personhood started when the egg and sperm united.

He said hype about the power of DNA has misled some people to believe that science supports the full-fledged personhood of a fertilized egg. But DNA, or a cell containing it, is no more a person than a blueprint is a house. And, as Gilbert told me back then, science cannot answer questions about the formation of the soul, because the soul is not a scientific concept. His comments at the Vatican, he said, led to much yelling and gesticulating, but he did find a point of agreement.

Both he and the officials at the Vatican meeting agreed that the unborn should be protected from pollutants likely to interfere with their development. He told them he was particularly concerned about endocrine disruptors – chemicals whose similarity to animal hormones can wreak havoc on development.

An unbreachable ideological gulf may long separate those who believe a fertilized egg is morally equivalent to a baby, and those of us who see it as a potential baby. For the latter, abortion is not the equivalent of murder. But whether a full person or a potential person, a developing embryo or fetus shouldn’t be damaged by pollutants. And we won’t know which pollutants are causing harm without long-term studies, and the studies won’t happen without funding.

To contact the author of this story: Faye Flam at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Philip Gray at

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.

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