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Mallory McDuff, Ph.D.

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Pro-life Argument Deserves Hearing in Mercury Ruling

Posted: 03/ 3/2012 12:00 pm

Would Jesus have multiplied fish contaminated with mercury and given them to pregnant women among the multitudes?

I don't think so.

But for supporting decreased mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants -- and framing the matter in pro-life terms -- the Evangelical Environmental Network faces the wrath of some conservative religious groups and Republican lawmakers.

Talk about an unnecessary turf war.

Defining "pro-life" as broader than "anti-abortion" increases the odds of diverse religious traditions working together to create healthy environments for our children to live, learn, play and pray.

"We understand the gift of creation as a sustainable gift empowering and providing for human life," the Rev. Mitch Hescox, president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, told the U.S. House Energy and Power Subcommittee last month. He testified in support of the EPA's new national standard reducing emissions of mercury and other pollutants by 90 percent in the next five years.

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., pushed back: "The 'life' in 'pro-life' denotes not the quality of life, but life itself. The term denotes opposition to a procedure that intentionally results in dead babies."

Similarly, the conservative Family Research Council and the Cornwall Alliance, which has ties to the oil and gas industry, dismiss environmental challenges presented in pro-life terms, arguing such challenges pose minimal threat to human life.

Yet the U.S. Centers for Disease Control report that one out of six newborns are at risk for developmental disorders due to maternal exposure to mercury. And mercury from power plants has resulted in fish consumption advisories in every state.

The EPA says decreasing mercury emissions would prevent 11,000 premature deaths and 130,000 asthma attacks every year, and save as much as $90 billion in annual health services. In addition, the upgrades at power plants will create an estimated 45,000 temporary construction jobs during the next five years.

Some members of Congress may be upset about the Evangelical Environmental Network's marketing campaign last year that raised awareness about mercury and other toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants. The ads focused on the sanctity of life and targeted legislators -- including many who oppose abortion rights.

In one ad, a woman named Pastor Tracy introduces herself with her young child and says, ""As an evangelical mom and church leader, I believe every life is a precious life from God....and I expect members of Congress to protect the unborn." She explains that coal-burning power plants have contributed to rising mercury levels in local waters and threaten the health of the unborn.

When I watched these ads, including one aimed at Sen. Kay Hagan in my home state of North Carolina, I felt hopeful that people of faith were advocating for the health of my children, as my family lives only 15 miles from a coal-fired power plant.

As a pro-choice Episcopalian, I first interacted with the Evangelical Environmental Network and Rev. Hescox while working on a book last year. We didn't talk about abortion or gay marriage, which often divide faith communities. Instead, we discussed how we could work together for the care of creation.

Later, he described his walk from Ansted, W.V. to Washington, D.C., to highlight the negative impacts of coal-fired power plants and mountaintop removal. Along West Virginia rivers, he saw signs that warned people not to eat the fish because of mercury contamination.

It's almost cliché now to ask: "What would Jesus do?" But we must continue to ask the question.

I believe Jesus wants a world where people of all faiths use their talents so we have clean water, unpolluted air, and fish we can eat.

Ensuring our environment supports healthy families and communities is, in my book, a more complete definition of what it means to be pro-life.