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Native History: Roe v. Wade Passes, But Indigenous Women Lack Access

On January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade that women across America had the constitutional right to legal abortions.

This Date in Native History: On January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade that women across America had the constitutional right to legal abortions. Abortion has been a hotbed topic throughout America ever since, however, Roe v. Wade has not had a major impact on indigenous women. The legality of abortion did nothing to create access to abortions for impoverished women living in rural areas and on reservations.

“Local IHS [Indian Health Service] Units often refuse to provide Native American women even the limited access to abortion services to which they are legally entitled,” wrote Charon Asetoyer, Yankton, the executive director of the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center in her report, “Access Denied: Native American Women and the Wronging of Abortion Rights.” The report goes on to say, “As our survey has shown, 85% of the IHS Service Units contacted were not in compliance with the official IHS abortion policy.”

In an interview, Asetoyer said that Native women’s rights have actually been reduced through the federal health care system, and specifically, Indian Health Service. “A lot of people don’t begin to understand that for rural Native women, the journey to terminate a pregnancy has far more barriers than for a woman who lives in an urban area.” She explained, “From the level of income to how far they may live from a clinic, if they have a car, a job, resources to get to a large urban area... these are all additional challenges we have to overcome when accessing these services.”

Over the years, the law has changed and some states have put additional restrictions on terminating pregnancy. Asetoyer said, “Some states have a three-day waiting period. If you live in a big city, you would see the physician, get the counseling, and go home and wait the three days. But for rural women it is not that simple, they have to be able to afford to get there and stay, so we have additional barriers to overcome.”

According to Erin Marie Konsmo, Media Arts and Projects Coordinator for Native Youth Sexual Health Network, Roe v. Wade was important because at the very least, it legislated legal abortion. However, she said that in general, the legislation came from a non-indigenous perspective. “It helped, but it was not specific to our reality, and it is not the solution to the injustice of indigenous women’s sexual health,” Konsmo, Métis/Cree, said.

The goal of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network is to restore cultural practices in communities, and return ancient knowledge, which has always included family planning. “Methods varied from nation to nation, and we weren’t pro or anti-abortion,” Konsmo said. “There were practices in response to our realities. If we didn’t have food to provide for a large family or it was winter or we had to travel, a pregnancy might be terminated. In many of our nations, there still exists indigenous knowledge that would allow us to terminate a pregnancy.”

For most if not all tribes, that decision was made solely by the woman who might have consulted with elders for herbal remedies that would bring on menstruation, according to a report from the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center.

The 2013 film released on PBS, Young Lakota, focused on the abortion debate in South Dakota and on the impeachment of Cecilia Firethunder, the first woman tribal chairman on the Pine Ridge Reservation, after she announced her intention to open a women’s health clinic on the reservation. Sunny Clifford has been front and center in the discussion about indigenous women’s reproductive rights since she appeared in that documentary.

Serena and Sunny Clifford on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. (Cine Qua Non, Inc.)

RELATED: ‘Young Lakota’ Focuses on a Woman’s Right to Choose, Premieres on PBS

“Colonization removed access to terminating our pregnancies,” Clifford said. “Colonization interfered with our coming of age ceremonies where you learned to celebrate life in your body, and you also learned about birth control.

“When I was growing up, my mom never talked about reproductive health, and no one ever talked to her about it,” she said. “I think on the reservations, we are still trying to catch up by having access to abortions.”

“This is a human rights issue,” Asetoyer said. “It is about access to health care service, and whether you believe in it or not, this is a decision a woman makes.”

Asetoyer said the Indian Health Service has the right to dispense emergency birth control and provide emergency abortions but all too often does not. “They can but they do not provide it, and they have made it extremely difficult to access termination. This is an area where they fall short.”

Obama’s Tribal Law and Order codes include standardized sexual assault policies and protocols in IHS emergency rooms, which Asetoyer said has been a huge step forward, but she added, “It doesn’t guarantee we will get them. As community activists and consumers, we have to press them to follow the letter of the law, and they need to fulfill those rights through the services they provide.”

“Unless we shout from the highest rooftops, unless we are fighting for our rights, nobody knows we don’t have them. It is assumed we do when in fact we don’t,” Asetoyer said.