When the government cuts corners, it risks the most vulnerable lives. To that end, new research suggests that after Flint, Michigan leadership changed its water source from Detroit-supplied to the contaminated Flint River, reproductive injustice followed.

The water change was purportedly undertaken to balance the budget. The decision caused lead exposure increases, yielded decreased birth rates, and resulted in “overall health at birth” decreases when Flint women of child-bearing age were compared with similarly situated women in other Michigan cities.

Daniel Grossman, of West Virginia University, and David Klusky, of University of Kansas, captured connections between poisonous water and compromised reproductive health within the largely Black city in a working paper. After April 2014, fertility rates for Flint women fell by 12%. Fetal deaths increased by 58%.

As Keith Matheny captured for the Detroit Free Press, Governor Rick Snyder and state health and environmental officials failed to acknowledge the water problem until whistleblowers intervened. Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency manager Miguel Del Toral expressed concerns with the water and residents health. Further, celebrated pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha developed research demonstrating lead’s negative effects on Flint children’s blood levels. Dr. Hanna-Attisha also improved support for the families affected and “renewed nationwide conversation about lead exposure and drinking-water safety.”

None of this is to suggest that Flint residents silently waited for a better day. Residents frequently and vehemently complained about the discolored, sickness-inducing water.

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Klusky, one of the paper’s authors, explained findings to the Free Press. “Flint’s [fertility] numbers fell off a cliff, and the rest of the cities stayed pretty much constant.” The researcher added, “We weren’t particularly surprised by this, but we didn’t expect it be as clean and clear as it was.”

Sexual activity in Flint did not appear to decrease. “Either Flint residents were unable to conceive children, or women were having more miscarriages during this time,” Slusky said.

National policy discussions often include how to maximize government spending and protect people whose lives are at risk. However, Flint is also a cautionary reproductive justice reminder. When people in positions of power fail to see and center the humanity of people whose lives they are entrusted with changing, heart-wrenching effects follow.  People who, of their own volition, decide not to bring lives into the world should be free to so decide. However, governmental malfeasance – predicated on balancing budgets instead of improving lives —  can rob people of their right to create or sustain healthy life.

“Flint was a government failure – enough people have been indicted that there’s a reasonable consensus around that,” Slusky told the Free Press.

 

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