Native Abortion Access

What about abortion access for Native Americans or on Tribal lands that are exempt from Federal laws?

Are Native Americans exempt from Dobbs?

In theory, Native Americans are exempt from US laws.. So they should have no problem getting abortion access even though Dobbs overturned Roe v Wade, right? Unfortunately that is not the case at all.  Native American women seeking abortions must navigate a complex maze of legal, financial and jurisdictional barriers to receive care. 

Native American women have historically faced discrimination, violence and oppression, just like any member of the BIPOC community.

Thus, for Natives, abortion access is a matter of tribal sovereignty, cultural identity and health equity.

Tribal customs and cultures vary widely, and even within the tribes, there are differing opinions on the abortion topic. 

The “tribal” mentality is to ban together and care for “unplanned” children as a group. 

Healthcare on Reservations is provided through the Indian Health Service (IHS), funded by the US government. IHS provides comprehensive health insurance to approximately 2.6 million Native American people from 574 federally-recognized tribes across the United States. 

The Hyde Amendment Strikes Again

The Hyde Amendment prohibits the use of federal funds for abortions (with rape, incest, and life of the mother exceptions). Thus, IHS facilities cannot perform abortions or even refer patients to abortion providers.

The Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center found that 85% of IHS facilities did not provide or refer abortion services to other providers.

This was true even for should-be exemptions (i.e. rape, incest or life of the mother).

Many Native women have had to seek care outside their communities, often traveling long distances and paying out-of-pocket expenses.

However, this option is not available for those who live in rural areas or face poverty, transportation or language barriers. 

Thus, Native Americans are subject to similar restrictions from red state bans. Native American women experience higher rates of poverty, unemployment, domestic violence and sexual assault than other demographics.

Tribal Lands Exempt from Abortion Bans?

When I was in Oklahoma in June of 2022 for WE’RE NOT GOING BACK!, I inquired about the possibility of abortion clinics being opened on Native American land. Desperate, I was looking for a solution to “save” the rest of us from post-Dobbs’ state and local restrictions. 

Since tribal nations are recognized sovereign entities with inherent authority to govern themselves, I was optimistic. However, this idea is not as simple or realistic as it may seem.

First, not all tribes have an interest in providing abortion services on their lands. Some may have cultural or religious beliefs that oppose abortion.

Second, private funding would be required for new abortion clinics due to the Hyde Amendment.

Third, tribal jurisdiction over abortion is not clear-cut and depends on a variety of factors.

Clinic location, patient or provider status, and the relationship between the tribe and the state could all play a part.

Legal expert Lauren van Schilfgaarde, a member of the Cochiti Pueblo tribe and Assistant Professor, UCLA School of Law has weighed in recently.

Criminal cases on Native American reservations are handled by tribal, state, or federal courts, depending on the situation.

Non-Indigenous crime on crime within a reservation’s boundaries are usually under state jurisdiction, van Schilfgaarde said.

Thus, state prosecutors might be able to charge a non-Indigenous doctor who provided abortions on a reservation.

Finally, offering abortions on tribal lands could invite backlash from anti-abortion groups or politicians who may challenge tribal sovereignty or threaten to cut off federal funding.

Therefore, while tribal lands may offer some limited opportunities for abortion access for Native American women, they are not likely to become abortion sanctuaries for everyone.

Hope and Help for Natives

So, how can we help Indigenous People? Advocates should focus on addressing the root causes of the lack of abortion access for Native American women. Providing resources and activism to combat poverty, violence, discrimination and health disparities are in order.

We need to support the efforts of Native Americans who are working to improve their reproductive health and rights within their own communities.

For example, some organizations provide culturally appropriate education and counseling on reproductive health issues;

others offer transportation and financial assistance for women seeking abortions;

some groups lobby for policy changes at the tribal or federal level;

and others promote healing and empowerment through traditional practices and ceremonies.

Accordingly, Indigenous Women Rising is the country’s only abortion fund for Native Americans.

Rachael Lorenzo (Mescalero Apache/Laguna Pueblo/Xicana) started the fund in 2014 as a campaign to bring attention to the fact that indigenous people were being denied access to Plan B, a form of emergency contraception. 

Indigenous Women Rising Abortion Fund

Now, Indigenous Women Rising creates the space for indigenous people to tell their own stories on their terms as an act of resistance, self love, and love for our ancestors and family.  

In conclusion, abortion access for Native American women is a complex and challenging issue that requires a holistic and respectful approach that honors their sovereignty, culture and dignity.

By acknowledging their unique needs and perspectives, we can work together to ensure that every Native American woman has the right and the ability to make her own reproductive choices.

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