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Using tear gas on protesters perpetuates patterns of reproductive harm

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Police officers use tear gas next to the Colorado State Capitol as protests against the death of George Floyd continue for a third night on May 30, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. The city of Denver enacted a curfew for Saturday and Sunday nights and Governor Jared Polis activated the Colorado National Guard in hopes of…

Last week, Seattle Judge Richard Jones placed an injunction on the use of tear gas and pepper spray as these weapons fail to target criminals and are especially problematic to public health during the coronavirus pandemic. 

We have all watched as tear gas was thrown into crowds of peaceful protesters, who chant and march in the name of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pop, Tony McDade, and so many others killed unjustly by the police or racist vigilantes. Completely peaceful protestors were swiftly pushed out of Lafayette Park with tear gas in D.C. for a poorly planned presidential photo-op.

Across the nation, activists are tirelessly calling attention to these brutal crowd control practices, as they are used against countless protests against racial injustice, despite the fact that tear gas has been banned for use during the war, condemned by infectious disease specialists for making protesters more susceptible to COVID-19, and is potentially linked to miscarriages as an abortifacient.

Exposure to tear gas can affect people’s ability to have children — every advocate for reproductive rights, women’s health, and families should be speaking up. Reports in several settings suggest tear gas is linked to miscarriages, resulting in its ban in Chile, condemnation by Physicians for Human Rights, and the ban on its use as a chemical agent in war. The effects of tear gas likely worsen as people are exposed to higher doses, but it’s hard to scientifically study or measure the concentration of tear gas during protests and those who are affected will be reluctant or afraid to seek medical help. 

Make no mistake: tear gas is a tool of reproductive oppression as used during these protests specifically, protests fighting for Black lives, Black futures, and Black people’s choices when it comes to their own families. Since the creation of policing in the U.S., Black people have been subject to disproportionate police brutality and use of tear gas.

Black women are already four times more likely to die in childbirth, more likely to experience preterm birth, and more likely to experience pregnancy-related complications because of systemic racism. 

Racism and bias in our medical system mean that black women are less likely to be taken seriously when they report pain and to receive medical care. The everyday stress from racism and microaggressions increases the risk of preeclampsia, preterm birth, and other risk factors that make delivery riskier for both Black mothers and their babies.

Now, police use of a banned chemical agent puts Black women at further risk. This “crowd control” tactic is a dangerous method that continues the cycle of reproductive injustice in this country: to limit and dangerously harm the reproductive freedoms of certain populations in the name of “safety.”  

On the streets, white and non-Black people are stepping into the front lines to protect Black people. Yet this is not enough when the police system is designed to use tear gas, putting women, their health, and reproductive freedom at risk. Moreover, Black women’s bodies are already policed in their everyday lives by their white peers. Black bodies are at risk, Black babies are at risk, and Black futures are at risk.

Banning the use of tear gas and defunding the police is a reproductive justice issue. Defunding the police — one of the main goals of Black Lives Matter — calls for a reorganization of funding from over-militarized police to other crucial, underfunded city services (including health services, mental health services, education, and more). People — especially Black people — know that the continued use of tear gas on peaceful protesters who are Black or who support the Black Lives Matter only further perpetuates the historical violence faced by Black women and other marginalized women on their choices to have children and in which environments.

The Black Lives Matter movement and these protests are demanding for reproductive justice — for the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and raise the children in safe and sustainable communities. The movement on the streets will no longer stand for the excuses made to use tear gas, to keep systemic injustice in its place. Seattle showcases the need for immediate action by localities. 

All organizations working on reproductive health, advocates for children and families, anyone who centers children, families, and reproductive rights in their work, must also come together and condemn the use of tear gas. We should all be calling on all cities and states to act in response to this reproductive justice problem.

Dhruvi Chauhan and Paula Kibuka Musoke are researchers and Goleen Samari is an assistant professor with the Department of Population and Family Health at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.


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