RANZCOG defends maternal and fetal health during Senate climate change inquiry

RANZCOG

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists

Updated
23 February 2024

In mid-2023 the Australian Senate referred Senator David Pocock’s bill, the Climate Change Amendment (Duty of Care and Intergenerational Climate Equity) Bill 2023 (the Duty of Care Bill, or the Bill) to committee for further study.

RANZCOG participated in the study, via a formal submission and testimony, on the basis of our specific involvement and expertise in all aspects of maternal and fetal health, and the College’s public commitment to advocate on climate change issues affecting the health of pregnant people and their babies.

On 22 February 2024, Dr Kristine Barnden, Chair of RANZCOG’s Sustainability Working Group, testified in front of the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee on behalf of the College and presented the key issues on this topic within RANZCOG’s written submission in support of the Bill. The College thanks Dr Barnden for her passionate advocacy on behalf of the College and Australian women and infants.

Climate change is the greatest threat to health of the 21st century (World Health Organisation, 2023). The broad impacts of climate change on health and wellbeing are increasingly recognised in the health domain. The specific risks of climate change to pregnancy, the developing fetus, and the future health of children are emerging as a major element of our maternity care efforts, and as such RANZCOG is committed to addressing the broader issues relating to climate change that are contributing to the health and wellbeing of our patients. RANZCOG is in full support of all governmental efforts to recognise and minimise the risks of climate change, as proposed in this Duty of Care Bill.

The health impacts of environmental conditions on maternal and fetal health are directly observable and are backed by an increasing body of evidence. Pregnancy complications such as preterm birth and low birth weight lead to increased vulnerability to poor mental and physical health throughout the lifespan. RANZCOG’s submission and testimony argues that the excess risk of miscarriage or stillbirth linked to adverse environmental exposures can be interpreted as representing a denial of life to unborn, and otherwise healthy children.

There are direct and indirect effects on pregnancy and the health of pregnant people from environmental conditions that are shown to be exacerbated by climate change. Floods, bushfires, and heatwaves are all detrimental to the health of pregnant people and pose a significant risk during pregnancy and on the health outcomes at birth and the future health trajectory of unborn children.

Evidence shows that pre-term births, low birth weight, miscarriage and stillbirth are all more prevalent during and following heatwaves and bushfires. As heatwaves become more common, more severe, and last longer because of changing climactic conditions, the health of pregnant people and fetuses will be under increased stress. Flooding and bushfires also contribute to disruptive emergency conditions that Severely impact the ability of health services to provide appropriate care.

As persistent economic reliance on fossil fuels leads to increasingly unconventional extraction practices, exposures to toxins that have negative outcomes for pregnancy health and on fetal development accelerates. The unconventional extraction of oil and natural gas increases the potential for air and water pollution with a range of toxic chemicals which can be shown to contribute negative birth outcomes. Intensification of coal mining also caused the downstream release of toxic chemicals into the surrounding environment which has been linked to increased prevalence of a range of birth defects.

Our elected government is empowered with setting and enforcing environmental standards and has a duty of care to ensure that policies mitigate the identified risk to health from environmental exposures (toxins, pollutants), conditions (heat) and acute outcomes (increasing prevalence and severity of environmental disasters).

RANZCOG was honoured to be able to put this evidence forward as part of the committee’s inquiry. Advocating for the health and well-being of pregnant people and children is a core component of the College’s mission. Both our submission, and Dr Barnden’s testimony argued strongly in favour of passing this Bill into law, and we look forward to that happening with the urgency that the situation requires.

RANZCOG acknowledges and thanks both Dr Kristine Barnden and Dr Pallas Mareyo for their contributions to RANZCOG’s submission.

For media enquiries
Bec McPhee
Manager, Executive Office & Advocacy
0413 258 166
bmcphee@ranzcog.edu.au

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