Cecilia Fire Thunder, the embattled first female president of the Oglala Sioux Nation in South Dakota, caught a tiger by the tail when she pronounced herself an entrenched supporter of women’s reproductive rights.
When the South Dakota Legislature voted in an abortion prohibition bill, the Oglala leader weighed in at once. The South Dakota abortion law, which would deny the procedure to victims of rape or incest, has stirred up the issue with activist groups pro and con across the country. It was signed into law by Gov. Mike Rounds on March 6.
With characteristic gutsiness, Fire Thunder declared that if the law took effect, she would find a place, if need be on her own land on the Pine Ridge Reservation, to put up a woman’s health clinic that would offer abortion among its services.
Fire Thunder said she would invoke tribal sovereignty to provide a clinic, if need be, and has lawyers working on it. She would stand up for women’s right to choose the right path for themselves in a traumatic or unwanted pregnancy. Columnist Tim Giago reported her earliest remarks on her wish to build a Planned Parenthood clinic at Pine Ridge. Subsequently she told the Rapid City Journal: “This is a free-choice issue. If I were in that situation, I’d want somewhere to go where I’d be taken care of.” It might not be on Pine Ridge, she later told Indian Country Today’s David Melmer, but: “I would lead the way to place a clinic on a reservation, if the referendum loses. I would even offer my land.”
Indian law experts commenting so far agree that tribal jurisdiction would trump state law, particularly with Indian doctors on trust lands. Others are not so sure, and the virulence of the opposition is fierce. State Rep. Elizabeth Kraus, R-Rapid City, said of a tribal clinic: “I think [a reservation clinic would be] poor policy because I don’t believe in abortion unless it’s to save the life of a mother. I don’t believe abortion is the answer to women’s problems.” Another South Dakota legislator referred to the crime of “simple” rape, not grievous enough to warrant consideration under the new law.
Native women’s health activist Charon Asetoyer has written on these same legislators’ effort to amend the state constitution “to include provisions that provide the unborn child, from the moment of conception, with the same protection of the law that the child receives after birth.”
Asetoyer has contended that the “argument that unborn children have full legal rights – independent of and hostile to those of the pregnant woman – has been used repeatedly to undermine both maternal and fetal health. In the name of such fetal/unborn rights, pregnant women have been subjected to unnecessary surgery, forcibly restrained and denied the ability to make health care decisions for themselves and their children.” (“South Dakota Task Force on abortion hurts pregnant women,” ICT, Vol. 25, Iss. 39.)
“In our culture, children are sacred,” stated Fire Thunder in response to anti-choice critics, “but women are sacred too, and somebody who has been victimized by rape or incest should have options.”
While the challenge is refreshing, the road to constructing a clinic on Pine Ridge has many twists and turns. True enough that many sympathetic folks with resources stand ready to help. This is evidenced in the blogosphere, while letters to the editor on the subject are lively. With luck and pluck, Fire Thunder has opened a path to leadership on a serious societal issue and perhaps created a good opportunity to resource a family planning and health option for her reservation. But particularly in an already very public and controversial case, Fire Thunder signals that the issue is not simply about her tribe’s right to build the facility. The preferred route is to beat the restrictive legislation on the state level.
Early in the controversy, Fire Thunder signed up with 15 co-leaders in the new “South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families.” The group, which includes many South Dakota notables, has launched a statewide campaign to overturn the new law. A referendum to vote on the question is likely to be on the ballot in November.
In making a stand for women’s reproductive rights, Fire Thunder stepped up to a position from which she can improve the lives of the women of her nation and also weigh in on a major America issue. Steadfastness, reasonable arguments and the human touch will be much required to navigate these contentious waters.