Vaginal Discourse

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[Trigger warning for slavery and other dehumanization]

I recently finished reading Barry Estabrook’s excellent book, Tomatoland. I won’t spend much time promoting it, because holy cow the folks at Andrews McMeel have [TW] gotten the word out.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about abortion rights, because that’s been in the news once or twice lately. That’s unfortunate, because holy cow given the war that powerful people are waging against reproductive health, it should be in the news a helluva lot more frequently.

That was pretty much my vacation: tomatoes and abortion.

Stay with me here.

Estabrook’s book explores Florida’s industrial tomato industry. Early on, he explores the conditions under which many tomato workers labor. There’s a chapter on poisons, and a chapter on slavery. I’m not sure I recommend taking Tomatoland to the beach.

As an occasional entomologist, the discussion of pesticides caught my eye. It turns out that the EPA allows growers to use methyl bromide on tomato crops (they’re one of four crops the EPA has carved out exemptions for). Methyl bromide is the stuff of legend. If you’re ever at a party with an entomologist (I recommend this), buy hir a drink and start talking about methyl bromide. That shit kills everything. Needless to say, bathing in the stuff can be “problematic” (you can thank Wikipedia for that phrasing).

In the case of three women Estabrook profiles who gave birth over a two month period in 2004 and 2005, “problematic” included giving birth to children with tetra-amelia syndrome, Pierre Robin syndrome, and in another case, a lethal combination of anatomical conditions. Medical professionals testified that this cluster of cases was very likely a result of exposure to multiple dangerous pesticides, including methyl bromide.

An international treaty largely forbids the production and use of methyl bromide. It is bad for the ozone layer.

Here’s what prompted this post:

It appears that Florida growers are showing more interest in an alternative to methyl bromide that many scientists view as one of the most toxic compounds employed in chemical manufacturing– so carcinogenic it has been used to induce cancers in laboratory cell cultures. Called methyl iodide, or iodomethane, the fumigant was approved in 2007 by the George W. Bush-era U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, despite a letter of warning signed by fifty-four of the world’s most prominent chemists and physicians, including five Nobel Prize-winning researchers. In their letter, the scientists noted that agents like methyl iodide are “extremely well-known cancer hazards” and that “their high-volatility and water solubility” would “guarantee substantial releases to air, surface waters, and ground water.” Although methyl iodide does not punch gaping holes in the ozone layer, the scientists reminded the agency that its own research had shown methyl iodide to cause “thyroid toxicity, permanent neurological damage, and fetal losses in experimental animals.” [Emphasis mine]

While the administration of George W. Bush was working to restrict (or eliminate) access to abortions for women who wanted them, it had no problem approving the use of a chemical that research suggests could cause abortions (among other things) in women who didn’t.

I don’t buy for a second the absurd proposition that anti-abortion activists are “pro-life.” Movements to restrict women’s control over their bodies are precisely that.

The right to exert control over one’s own body is a key, indeed typically the key principle behind reproductive rights activism. I don’t need to tell you that we’ve got our hands full fighting for our rights on this front. However, reproductive rights don’t exist within a vacuum. The fight for bodily autonomy includes the fight for labor justice, for economic justice, for environmental justice, and in short, for justice.

Those of us who fight for reproductive rights are not a “special interest” group, as we’ll undoubtedly be repeated reminded between now and next November. We are, and must be, focused on human rights, an umbrella under which every other supposedly isolated issue resides.



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