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American Indian Women and Reproductive Justice

Throughout the process of colonization, a period of 500 years and counting, Indian women and two spirit people have collectively experienced generational and individual trauma. These acts have come in many forms and include assault, rape, forced sterilization, lack of access to equitable prenatal/postnatal care, reproductive health services, poverty, assimilation, exotification, objectification, exploitation, murder, and everything in between. Each generation of tribal women & two spirit people have come to experience nearly all these things. In higher rates than their white and non-Indian counterparts in the United States. It is only recently that federal agencies are beginning to empower tribes to reconcile policy gaps to enable them to prosecute non-Indian people who perpetrate crimes against Indian women and families with the most recent reauthorization of the Violence against Women Act of 2013.

Why does this matter? Non-Indian people and the United States Government retain the right to live, govern and do business on the land now known as the United States if, and only if, they uphold treaties and trust responsibilities with sovereign tribal nations who ceded these lands. Many of those treaties included within them provision for health and education of all citizens of their tribal nations in perpetuity. Additionally, much of the institutional harm done to tribal women and two spirit people has been due to arms of the federal government. Therefore, there is not only a moral duty but a legal duty owed to tribal people concerning access to the full range of reproductive health services, especially in light of particular policies and practices which have detrimentally impacted the health of tribal people. That duty includes restoring the body autonomy that tribal women once traditionally had. This individual sovereignty included access to traditional knowledge and medicines, which ensured every person was emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally able to determine for themselves when to begin a family.

As we begin the month of November, and celebrate the many contributions of Indigenous People in the United States we also acknowledge the imminent challenges which are not unrelated to reproductive justice in that they threaten our livelihood, humanity and ultimately our tribal nations. There has been a loss of language and culture through centuries of colonization. We also face immediate threat to our health and well-being with the fight for clean water. While the pressure to maintain culture and blood quantum may be felt by all tribal people; the ultimate responsibility to produce potential future tribal citizens remains with, and in the hands and wombs of Indian women and two spirit people who are able to bear children. How does the history and experience of this group effect their decisions regarding when and how to have children? What size family they will have as well as their views and access to abortion and other reproductive health services?

According to a 2002 report from the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center (NAWHERC), the legalization of abortion signified a first important step toward improving women’s rights. However, “the cost of abortion services remains a major barrier for many women, in particular for low income, immigrant, minority, and indigenous women.” What was reported back were the numbers of abortions performed within Indian Health Service facilities with the use of federal dollars.

Over a 20-year period of time (1981–2001), across the country, that number was 25, meaning Indian Health Service provided the population of women who experience the highest rates of rape, incest, and sexual and intimate partner violence with access and funding for an average of 1 abortion per year throughout the nation. Indian women are at risk of not being able to exercise their right to abortion services because they lack the financial means, and as long as the Hyde Amendment stands as official policy to guide Indian Health Service, this will continue to be the case until it is repealed. Prior to publishing its report on reproductive health of Indian women, the NAWHERC made a public record request to the Indian Health Service regarding abortions meeting the Hyde Amendment exemptions.

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