Abortion Bans Are Nothing New To Indigenous Women & Here’s What I Want You To Know

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In this op-ed, Christine Nobiss, MA, Plains Cree/Saulteaux of the George Gordon First Nation, and Decolonizer with Seeding Sovereignty, discusses why abortion bans are a continuation of a colonial mentality and what Tribal Nations can do to fight back. To learn more and support our work, please visit www.seedingsovereignty.org.

On May 21, pro-choice activists hosted a national day of action in response to rapidly increasing state legislation banning or severely restricting abortion rights. Seeding Sovereignty was a proud co-host of the event in Des Moines, Iowa, where I was invited to speak and provide an Indigenous perspective on the right to choose. While these bans were shocking to a vast number of Americans, the fact remains that for Indigenous people, they’re nothing new. The process of colonization has left us without reproductive justice options in our territories for hundreds of years, and these bans are an echo of this history.

For the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island, 500 years of colonization has disenfranchised us of basic human rights, creating a world where violence, in every capacity, has infiltrated our communities. Our people have worked hard to break the cycle of colonial violence through cultural revival, federal partnerships and grassroots organizing, but historical trauma runs deep.

Indigenous women face the highest rape and sexual assault rates in the United States, according to Indian Law Resource Center. Cycles of trauma have also heightened the rates of substance use in our communities. These injustices alone create higher need for abortions — these are crisis situations where a women’s right to choose is an absolute necessity. But poverty, inadequate education, and reproductive health discrimination created by a lack of quality family planning resources in areas with high Indigenous populations also leads to high unintended pregnancy rates. In 2017, it was reported that youth pregnancies were more than twice as high in indigenous teens than in white teens.

Not only do Indigenous women have a greater need to access family planning and abortion services but the Hyde amendment has limited all access to this essential health care need on reservations since 1976. The amendment “bans the use of federal funds for abortion services, except in cases of pregnancies resulting from rape or incest or those that pose a threat to the mother’s life.” Enrolled Native Americans and Alaskan Natives receive free health care through the federally funded program Indian Health Services (IHS), but because IHS is often the only health care available, this means that Native women on reservations don't have access to reproductive health care that includes abortion, according to a 2014 report published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Overcoming the the Hyde Amendment has been tried before. For instance, in 2006, Oglala Sioux Tribal President Cecilia Fire Thunder, made it her mission to provide abortion services on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It was voted down by the tribe, but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep trying.

As an Indigenous person, I take infiltration of Christianity into legislation very seriously, because it perpetuates ideologies that were used to support colonization and genocide.

Since our traditional methods of birth control and abortion have been stripped from us, Indigenous women in rural areas and reservations are forced to carry through with pregnancies or travel long distances and pay out of pocket at private clinics to obtain an abortion. This injustice creates higher rates of poor mental health, infant mortality, maternal death and long-term financial and emotional hardship for families and single mothers. It feeds in to the cycle of historical trauma.

These harsh statistics have not stopped anti-choice advocates from continuing their assault on the right to choose as they ceaselessly challenge Roe v. Wade. And recently, their chances of doing so increased. Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the U.S. supreme court has solidified a conservative majority on the bench that has not been seen in over 50 years. Now, legislators in states across the country are rapidly passing bills restricting the right to access abortion.

Many news outlets last fall were excited to announce that the 116th Congress has the most diverse freshman class yet. But at the same time, the Republican party became more white and male than ever. This year, the Republican members of Congress are 95% white, 99.2% Christian, 90% men, and nearly all Republican members of Congress oppose abortion rights in different capacities. (It must be noted that 53% of White women, also primarily Christian, voted for President Donald Trump, whose administration has supported these bans.)

What do these numbers this tell us? To me, this looks like a white, Christian problem. There is a segment of this country's population that has no intention of separating church and state. As an Indigenous person, I take infiltration of Christianity into legislation that doesn’t separate church from state very seriously, because it perpetuates the doctrine of discovery, manifest destiny, the white man’s burden, and other ideologies that were used to support colonization and genocide.

This far-right, Christian minority — who are systematically dismantling the rights, freedoms and safeties of women and people of color — seem to share ideological values with colonizers that openly raped and murdered Indigenous and African people for the sake of free land and labor. Their priests abused and killed indigenous children and buried them in unmarked graves behind boarding schools that were designed to strip indigenous people of their culture. They secretly sterilized innocent Indigenous and Black women for centuries, the extent of which is still just coming to light. Today, these legislators want to end the Violence Against Women Act, or at least limit it. And now they are quickly attempting to end abortion.

Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island had ways to “make the period come” with help of other women in the community. Unlike many cultures in which access to abortion is limited, gender norms in Native American cultures traditionally support and respect women’s autonomy with regard to reproductive health decisions. Though Indigenous midwifery is making a comeback and Indigenous women are steadily gaining educations and jobs with good health insurance, the fact remains our People are neglected and left without reproductive justice options in our own territories. The Hyde Amendment is, perhaps, the most punitive and inhumane regulation imposed upon the reproductive lives of low-income women. For Indigenous Peoples, these statewide abortion bans mean there is nowhere to go but up.