Comment: Recent SCOTUS decisions threaten the health of all people

Sometimes the government fails us.

For those of us who have dedicated our professional lives to health care, this is hard to admit. Let’s face it, the very definition of public health – what we as a society do to ensure the conditions in which people can be healthy – depends on government protecting people, ecosystems and the environment.

But here we are. By limiting access to safe, timely, affordable, and respectful abortion care; prioritizing the rights of individuals to bear arms over public safety; and limit the federal government’s ability to regulate air quality, three recent US Supreme Court decisions threaten the health of all people.

Worse, these decisions undermine trust in our democratic institutions and contribute to long-standing inequalities based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, income, and geography.

While these decisions certainly affect people, the consequences reach far beyond our social fabric, our homes and communities, our economy, and the future direction of our country. The decision to overturn Roe v. Wade deprives pregnant people of two basic rights – the right to privacy and the right to health care. Forcing a full-term pregnancy when it is not something a person wants or can safely do deprives her of her freedom and autonomy and puts a strain on community resources, including childcare, education, health and social support and services.

The decision to overturn Roe v. Wade marked the first time in history that the Supreme Court overturned an individual constitutional right. It doesn’t take an interest in public health to worry about other rights now in danger of being repealed.

In New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, the Supreme Court chose to prioritize individual rights over public safety. This has far-reaching implications, including for our collective ability to respond to threats to health and safety.

Violence with the use of weapons harms the health of the population. The data show that areas with higher levels of gun violence at the community level also have higher rates of domestic violence, child abuse, concentrated poverty, and racial segregation. Making it easier to carry and conceal guns is the antithesis of public health.

Most of us would agree that breathing clean air is a fundamental right that should not be subject to political winds. As with many public health issues, we see disparities in the burdens of poor air quality and respiratory health among rural, low-income, and minority populations.

Given the deep polluters of industry, federal air quality regulation is a necessary tool to protect the air we breathe across state lines, especially for a state like Maine where much of our air pollution comes from other states. However, in West Virginia v. EPA, the Supreme Court limited the government’s ability to curb emissions and limit air pollution that harms human health and the environment.

Each of these decisions affects determinants of our health that we cannot control, likely leading to increased disease and premature death, with a disproportionate impact on people living in rural areas, racial and ethnic minorities, adolescents, people with behavioral and mental disorders and those who are economically disadvantaged.

The Maine Public Health Association stands in solidarity with members of the public health community in expressing our opposition to this Supreme Court decision. We are committed to promoting and advocating for public health policies that ensure equitable access to comprehensive reproductive health care, prevent and intervene to reduce gun violence and protect air quality.

These decisions remind us once again that democracy is fragile; that our government and our rights require vigorous vigilance, and that elections have public health implications. Indeed, voting is a public health issue, and we continue to work to make voting accessible, safe and fair for all eligible voters in Maine.

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