A Native Perspective on the Right to Choose

Abortion is a hot topic in South Dakota today. On March 6, Gov. Mike Rounds signed a bill that bans nearly all abortions in the state.

This legislation is in direct conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973.

Saying, “In the history of the world, the true test of a civilization is how well people treat the most vulnerable and most helpless in their society,” Rounds, a Republican, effectively signed away a woman’s right to choose.

Throughout the centuries in American Indian societies, women have always had the right to choose whether to abort.

Medicinal plants were used to flush a woman’s womb if she so chose and this was a right that Native women exercised. If something was wrong with the baby or the woman’s life was endangered because of the pregnancy, then she had the right to choose to abort the pregnancy.

As an illustration of this, Plains tribes lived their lives much like their relatives – the buffalo nation.

According to Lakota cultural expert Wayne Weston, “The buffalo live their lives in four different circles: the calves (children), the elders, the females (women) and the bulls (men).

“Each group is significant in that they have their own leaders, morals, obligations and are autonomous.”

Weston elaborates that in today’s male-dominated society, the government has invaded all of these circles and as a result we have lost respect for each other’s roles in life.

Like today’s “pro-life” groups of contemporary America, Lakotas have always believed that the fetus is a precious human life. But if the pregnancy was during a time of drought or famine and there was a chance that either the woman or child would be in danger, then the right to choose was always up to the woman and the society that she belonged to.

As Weston puts it, “The decision that was made by her was always honored and respected.”

In today’s society, there is a significant loss of respect and knowledge of the roles and rights that people had in pre-reservation times. Society has evolved into a fast-paced, high-tech era that leaves little room for respect of basic human values.

We have social ills such as high rates of alcohol/drug abuse, crime and violence. As a result, people’s roles and boundaries are no longer respected.

Because the male-dominated government that we live under is confused about its role, it is infringing on the basic human rights that we have as a people.

In the case of South Dakota, the male-dominated state Legislature has virtually banned abortion. No matter if the pregnancy was the result of rape. No matter if the pregnancy was the result of incest. No matter if giving birth would damage the health of the mother. No abortions, period – except to save a woman’s life.

After all, when we look at the number of men and women within the South Dakota Legislature, there are 57 men in the House compared to 13 women. While in the Senate, there are 33 men and two women!

We have a male-dominated government creating laws that pertain to the women’s circle and, ideally, should be created with more input from women’s groups.

The research I have done so far has caused me to stop and think hard about the type of society that we live in today.

When I learn from the old teachings of my ancestors and try to apply it in today’s time, I believe that American society can learn a lot from us on birth control and the right to choose.

As Daniel Maguire says in his book, “Sacred Rights,” “Indeed, as victims of centuries of population control, American Indians are among the most important participants in discussions on the population question.”

<i>Russell Cournoyer writes from Porcupine, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Reservation.