Healthy World, Healthy Womb

Nelson Institute graduate student Morgan Robinson studies the intersection between women’s health, social justice, and the environment.

Would you choose to have kids if you knew they would be born into an environment riddled with toxic pollution, subjecting them to poor health throughout their lives? This is a struggle that many future parents are currently grappling with — and one that’s a guiding question for Nelson Institute PhD student Morgan Robinson. For years, Robinson has studied the relationship between a woman’s reproductive health and her access to a healthy environment, but the connection may not be as obvious to everyone. “It makes so much sense to me, but sometimes it’s hard to convince people that women’s health is an environmental issue,” she says. 

We often talk about the woman, or pregnant person, as a fetus’ first environment — but we don’t talk about the environment of the pregnant person.”
— Morgan Robinson

Robinson has a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies with a minor in sociology from Metropolitan State University in Denver. Growing up, she was aware of the discourse surrounding women’s health and women’s rights, but it wasn’t something she sought out to study. However, when taking a gender and women’s studies course for a general requirement, something “clicked” for Robinson. 

Morgan Robinson
Morgan Robinson

“I remember feeling transformed from all of the information I was taking in. I started learning about everyone’s individual experiences and how many were different from my own. It made me realize that I have so many privileges that I hadn’t considered before,” says Robinson. After discovering her passion for women’s rights, she focused her efforts on examining the relationship between environmental pollution and women’s health. 

As her undergraduate degree drew to a close, Robinson decided her next step was to pursue a graduate degree where she could continue to learn about the intricacies of women’s health issues. “As an undergraduate I had a lot of male anthropology and environmental studies professors who didn’t understand the connection between women’s reproductive health and pollution, so I knew I needed to be in a place where I could really dive into the relationship,” says Robinson. “When I found the Nelson Institute, it seemed like the perfect place to study these things with an interdisciplinary approach.”

How exactly does pollution and our environment affect women’s pregnancies and reproductive health? “The environment a pregnant woman is in can impact the environment of her womb, which may negatively impact a developing fetus,” Robinson says. This field of study is referred to as environmental epigenetics, where environmental factors — such as someone’s exposure to pollutants or other toxins — affects how their genes function. If a pregnant woman is surrounded by a harmful environment, it could lead to health issues or birth defects in her child. 

“Environmental justice and reproductive justice are very intertwined, because people should be able to birth and raise children in a safe, healthy, and sustainable environment,” says Robinson. “We often talk about the woman, or pregnant person, as a fetus’ first environment — but we don’t talk about the environment of the pregnant person.” 

Social justice also comes into play when examining women’s health issues. “There are a lot of Black, Latina, Asian, and Native American women who have been talking about these issues for a long time,” Robinson says. “Environmental health issues often affect communities of color before they affect white communities. A lot of people live in certain areas because of their race — which stems from legacies of slavery and discriminatory housing practices throughout U.S. history — and often don’t have the opportunity to move out of these areas.” For example, communities in Madison that have been historically redlined overlap with areas zoned for industrial use — leading to much higher levels of air and water pollution in those communities. 

While Robinson isn’t sure exactly where the future will take her, she knows her passion lies in reproductive health and environmental justice. In a constantly changing climate, her commitment to women’s health issues will undoubtedly help shed light on the intersection between reproductive health, social justice, and the environment. “Reproductive health is intimately connected to environmental health, and I feel like a lot of people don’t connect the dots between the two,” Robinson says. “Everything about our physical environment — the streets we live on, the places we go, and the food we have access to — affects our reproductive health. Reproductive health is so intertwined with environmental health.”