In some Indigenous communities, the right to abortion is not only protected but sacred.
[Story by Mara Cavallaro & Olivia Cruz Mayeda; Featured illustration by Sonia López-Chávez — Mara Cavallaro is El Tecolote’s Report for America Corps Member who reports on mental health and healthcare inequality in the Latinx community.]
EDITOR’S NOTE: When El Tecolote learned in May via a leaked memo that the extremist right-wing Supreme Court of the United States intended to overturn Roe v. Wade, a decision that would threaten the safety of many, we knew we couldn’t stay silent. As a community newspaper rooted in social justice, we identified this as a crucial moment to share the thoughts and lived experiences of our diverse communities, which we have served for over 50 years. To do that, we present this special issue, dedicated to amplifying the voices and the unique challenges that our diverse Latinx communities have faced and will continue to face in the fight for reproductive justice. This special issue is supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Reproductive Rights Reporting Fund. We’d like to extend a sincere thank you to IWMF and our contributors.
In July, after Roe was overturned, the Indigenous Women Rising abortion fund, a Native-led project for reproductive justice, reached its limit for the month in just three weeks. About a third of their requests come in from Oklahoma, where over 40 percent of the state is reservation land and abortion is now banned at fertilization.
Even with Roe’s protections, Native women in the U.S. were two to three times more likely to die as a result of pregnancy than white women. Now, the likelihood of unsafe — and unwanted — pregnancies is even higher. And though Native communities are disproportionately affected by reproductive health policies, Indigenous perspectives are often ignored.
The project to reverse Roe v. Wade began almost as soon as the ruling was announced. Around 1980, the rise of evangelicalism and the religious right advanced oppressive regimes of “morality” that decried abortion and LGBTQ rights, and gained massive political power. Now, four decades later, anti-choice conservative Christians dominate religious politics, despite a majority of religious Americans opposing abortion bans. “Oftentimes when we talk about ‘religious’ communities…[and] abortion, we only hear about Christians and contemporary — often white — understandings of Christianity,” Abaki Beck, a Blackfeet and Red River Métis public health researcher told El Tecolote.
A Pew Research Center poll from 2013 indicated that white evangelical Protestants were “the only major religious group” with majority support for overturning Roe. A majority of white (non-evangelical) Protestants (76 percent), Black Protestants (65 percent), and white Catholics (63 percent) believed Roe should not be overturned. Overall, then, the majority of polled Christians supported maintaining the 1973 decision. Just as revealing is the poll’s sample, which classified responders as either Christian or “unaffiliated,” leaving out major belief systems for which abortion is a crucial issue.
In some Indigenous communities, for instance, the right to abortion is not only protected but sacred. Moniqué Mercurio, who is Ohlone and Diné, lives in Haskell, Kansas, where she is the community coordinator of the local Indigenous Community Center (ICC). The day Roe was overturned, the center released a statement condemning the decision as an act of white supremacy. Later that week, the ICC hosted a panel on reproductive justice and colonialism. “We have a very big inter-tribal community here, and … the one thing that has come up time and time again, no matter what region our tribe is from, is that abortion is sacred,” Mercurio told El Tecolote. “Abortion is ceremony. We’ve always known that.”
For Rachael Lorenzo, co-founder of Indigenous Women Rising, abortion care is part of the reason we exist. “I am here because of abortion — someone down the line of my ancestors knew when it was and wasn’t time for expanding their family,” they wrote for Planned Parenthood’s blog. “My own children are here because of abortion.”
Part of what makes abortion sacred is how intertwined it is with intergenerational care practices, land, and inherited knowledge of plant remedies. Beck, for instance, recalls summers spent outside picking medicinal and food plants with her grandmother, aunts, mothers, and cousins. Every plant had a purpose and would be carefully cleaned and processed for teas and tinctures. “Many members of my family … continue to use plant medicine on a daily basis for pain relief or anti-inflammation for arthritis,” Beck explained. And plants, too, have played a role in Blackfeet reproductive care, from menstruation to pregnancy to abortion. “Globally, abortion has been a normal part of many Indigenous healthcare traditions. It is not a new or ‘modern’ medical process,” she said.
Both federal policies and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples guarantee the right of Native tribes to practice their religious and cultural traditions. “[That] includes Indigenous peoples’ right to use plant-based medicines for reproductive health,” Rosalyn LaPier, an Indigenous ethnobotanist and environmental historian, explained. The overturning of Roe, then, encompasses not just a violation of bodily autonomy, but of cultural practices and land sovereignty.
In June, a Tucson city councilmember suggested funding an abortion clinic on tribal land in response to the reversal of Roe. The councilmember later retracted his statement, but he wasn’t alone in his proposal. “It was the Umqua tribes that brought our county our first life-saving Covid vaccines, so yes they will save lives again!!!!!” one non-Native woman tweeted, misspelling Umpqua. “Native Americans could become refugees for women’s healthcare!” another chimed in. “How about you don’t turn to us to solve your problems after hundreds of years of causing our problems?” a Native user replied.
The expectation that tribal communities can and should provide a solution to the reversal of Roe points to a deep flaw in the framing of mainstream conversations about abortion rights and access — they lack a meaningful reflection on centuries of settler colonialism. What’s missing is an understanding that transcends the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and its overturning in 2022. “These American women have been fighting … but we’ve literally been fighting since 1492,” Mercurio told El Tecolote. “We’re in this situation because of colonization, because of a settler mindset … I would definitely say [non-Native feminists] are getting their dates wrong.”
In his remarks on the day of Roe’s reversal, President Biden said that the Supreme Court’s decision was “taking America back 150 years.” But as recently as five years ago, the Indian Health Service (IHS) was denying Native people their reproductive rights, not only by preventing access to abortion but also by forcibly sterilizing them. Thousands of Native people were sterilized without their consent by the Indian Health Service in the years following 1973, according to a report by historian Jane Lawrence. In 1955, The IHS, run by the Department of Health and Human Services, became the sole health care provider for many Native communities. Yet the agency has been notorious for poor care since its inception, including chronic underfunding and multiple assaults of Native patients by its health care providers.
In 1976, three years after Roe, the Hyde amendment passed, preventing the use of federal funds for abortion — meaning for anyone who depends on the IHS for health care, abortion is not covered. “Roe v. Wade has never been a reality for Native people since so many of us, whether we live on a reservation or in the city, rely on the Indian Health Service,” Lorenzo said in an interview with Elle. That there were calls made by non-Native people to build abortion centers on reservations at all reveals a continued disrespect for tribal sovereignty, and ignorance surrounding the lack of access to reproductive care in Native communities.
More broadly, ‘mainstream’ feminist movements also continue to neglect Native voices and demands. For instance, support for missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) is often lacking. At the Indigenous Community Center where she works, Mercurio began a missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, two-spirit, and trans chapter, but, she said, “we’re not getting any outside help.”
“I think [people] don’t realize how much those two things [MMIW and reproductive rights] are correlated,” Mercurio told El Tecolote. Conversations about both are rooted in the right to bodily autonomy, safety, and equality. Solidarity means understanding how all these things connect. “Once people can realize the totality of it, you know, maybe some bigger movements will be made,” Mercurio said. “We’re always looking for allies.”
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