In December, the South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion issued its
majority report. As many now know, the task force members recommended a
full ban on all abortions, explicitly rejecting a proposal by the task
force's pro-life chair that would allow exceptions for rape, incest and the
life of the mother. What many people do not appreciate is an even more
far-reaching and dangerous recommendation that will affect all pregnant
women and undermine both maternal and fetal health.
The task force also urged the state to amend its 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."
This recommendation has already been acted upon by state legislators as
Joint Resolution 2 to amend the South Dakota Constitution.
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.
For example, in 2005, a self-described true believer in the Bible went to a
Pennsylvania hospital to deliver her seventh wanted child. The hospital
decided she needed a Caesarean section and, when she refused, went to court
using the argument recommended by the South Dakota Legislature: that the
fetus had full, separate constitutional rights. The hospital won. The court
gave the hospital custody of the fetus before, during and after delivery
and the right to take custody of the pregnant woman to force her to undergo
surgery. In the end, she and her husband fled the hospital and delivered a
perfectly health baby without surgery.
Angela Carder was not as lucky. At 27 years old and 25 weeks pregnant, she
became critically ill. She, her family and her attending physicians all
agreed on a treatment designed to keep her alive for as long as possible.
The hospital, however, called an emergency hearing to determine the rights
of the fetus. Despite testimony that a Caesarean section could kill her,
the court ordered the surgery because the fetus had independent legal
rights. The surgery resulted in the death of both Carder and her fetus.
Ayesha Madyun was forced to have a Caesarean section based on the claim
that she had been in labor too long and that her baby was at risk of dying
from an infection. Her request to be allowed to wait longer before having
the surgery so she could try natural delivery was portrayed to the court as
an irrational religious objection to surgery. The court granted the order.
After Madyun had been forcibly cut open, they found that there was, in
fact, no infection.
Why would the South Dakota task force want these things to happen to the
pregnant women of South Dakota? Neither women nor children would be
protected by the existence of special fetal rights that make women flee
from hospitals and subject them and their unborn children to unnecessary
surgery. In fact, leading medical groups and appellate courts have found
such interventions to be unconstitutional.
In a free society, it should be possible to value potential life as matter
of religious belief, emotional conviction or personal experience without
creating new and special fetal rights that in fact undermine maternal
health and rights. The South Dakota task force was offered many positive
suggestions for enhancing the interests of all pregnant women, including
those who want to continue to term. It is a shame that the task force chose
instead to use the hearings as a platform for the most radical positions
opposing abortion and as a basis for recommendations that would make
pregnant women who continue to term vulnerable to new, dangerous and
counterproductive state interventions.
American Indian women receive health care both on and off our reservation
communities and need to be aware of the laws to which we are subject. As a
Native woman, I have serious concerns over the direction South Dakota is
taking concerning the reproductive rights of women. The state is being used
as a testing ground for the right wing agenda. This agenda is not only to
ban abortions within the state of South Dakota, but to use a case from
South Dakota to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Even more concerning is the fact that many of the bills that they have been
moving through the South Dakota Legislature this session are bills that
take away many of a woman's rights to reproductive services and affect our
children. Examples include House Bill 1184, which allows health care
providers and institutions to opt out of providing health care for
religious or ethical reasons. We must ensure that all people are protected
in the observation of their religious faith and that all people can get the
health care they need. This bill, however, only protects doctors who, as a
matter of conscience, want to prevent women from obtaining birth control --
not women who, as a matter of conscience, seek birth control to ensure
their health and the long-term health and well-being of their families.
Another bill is H.R. 1217 -- abstinence only. Most agree that abstinence is
the best method of preventing the spread of sexually transmitted infections
and unintended pregnancies. In the real world, though, we know that people
aren't always abstinent. This bill would outlaw the teaching of accurate,
truthful information to help people prevent pregnancy and the spread of HIV
and other STIs. Comprehensive sex education has been proven to reduce
unintended pregnancies and abortion. The list of oppressive, anti-women
bills goes on and on. In South Dakota, Native women live both on and off
the reservation, and receive health care in facilities that are subject to
the laws of the state.
Charon Asetoyer is the founder and executive director of the Native
American Women's Health Education Resource Center, a grass-roots women's
health institute on the Yankton reservation in South Dakota.