Indigenous People in American and Access to Abortion

In the ongoing conversation about abortion, Indigenous People in the US are oftentimes left out. This is a pretty glaring oversight since Indigenous People are over-represented in abortion statistics.

What does this mean?
It means that the ratio of Indigenous People compared to other ethnicities in a particular issue does not reflect the true proportion of their population. In the case of reproductive health, specifically, it means that Indigenous People with uteruses experience a higher rate of unintended pregnancy than their Caucasian counterparts. These disproportionately high unintended pregnancy rates may lead to more abortions.  

Why does this happen?
Poverty, discrimination, and violence all contribute to an environment that does not support Indigenous People’s ability to fully control their reproductive health. Indigenous People in the US that can get pregnant have experienced (and continue to experience) harsh mistreatment – from forced sterilization to persistently high rates of rape and sexual assault in their communities. They continue to face barriers that are rooted in historical abuse, lack of resources, and contemporary misunderstanding. Since Indigenous People populations were targeted during the eugenics movement, it is understandable that any conversation around reproductive justice for this population is fraught with cultural trauma and suspicion.

How does this all relate to abortion access?
Federal policies have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous People’s ability to access abortion, since abortions are not performed on reservations. Income inequality and poverty make it even harder for many Indigenous People to get the care they need. Add to that the fact that the Indian Health Service is non-compliant with its own abortion policy in many of its clinics, and the Indigenous community is neglected and left without reproductive healthcare options.  Teenage pregnancy and unintended pregnancy rates continue to increase, signaling that this is an important issue to address.

What do Indigenous People say about abortion, though?
“Within traditional societies and languages, there is no word that equals abortion. The word itself is very harsh and impersonal. When speaking to traditional Elders knowledgeable about reproductive health matters, repeatedly they would refer to a person knowing which herbs and methods to use “to make their period come.” This was seen as a person taking care of themself and doing what was necessary. Oftentimes people would turn to the person within their society that were the keepers of those herbs, medicines, and techniques for assistance.” (Quote source)

Within their communities, Native Americans are organizing and creating empowering opportunities for themselves. Organizations like Mending the Sacred Hoop (which works to reduce violence against Indigenous People), the Native American Rights Fund, and The Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center (NAWHERC) are only three examples of the important strides that have been made to secure, protect, and advance their rights and health. More recently in the news, Indigenous designers and artists have raised awareness of their heritage by telling their stories through magnificent clothing design, prompting important discussions about advocacy, cultural aesthetics, and storytelling.

So what can we do?
First, we can repeal the Hyde Amendment, and free up federal funds to support Indigenous People who are seeking an abortion. Second, we can educate, provide services, and show support for and appreciation of Indigenous culture without being disrespectful. And lastly, we can educate ourselves by learning more about Indigenous People in the US and their lives by reading reports like “Indigenous Women’s Reproductive Rights: The Indian Health Service and Its Inconsistent Application of the Hyde Amendment” (October 2002) and watching documentaries like Young Lakota (2013).

P.S. Next month (November) is Indigenous People Heritage Month!

Did you like this post? Do you think carafem has a great message? If so, sign up for our newsletter and stay up-to-date as we bust abortion stigma and provide top-notch reproductive healthcare services!