As the attacks on reproductive health and the right to bodily autonomy for those who can get pregnant grow bolder, access to safe and affordable sexual and reproductive health services, especially for abortions, has worsened. In Texas, Senate Bill 8 bans abortion as early as six weeks and offers $10,000 to private citizens to sue anyone who performs abortions or aids those seeking that reproductive care. While the bill presents new barriers for many Americans, the restrictions it imposes on Indigenous people’s bodies and the penalties for breaking them are just another in a long line of oppressive government regulations that they have long endured.
Many Indigenous communities have a long history of embracing abortion and the autonomy of birthing people as a natural part of reproductive care in their cultures and view state and federal abortion restrictions as part of a larger tapestry in which Indigenous cultures and practices have been forcibly erased. In a September brief addressing Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a challenge to a Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy stated that “[b]irth control, abortion, prenatal care, birth, and maternal care all have rich, contextualized histories and roles within many tribal communities. The provision of this care was frequently overseen by female relations, guided by the autonomy of the individual and the reciprocal obligations of and to the community.”
“It’s provided in the natural world to have an abortion,” said Krystal Curley, an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. “We take certain herbs, and it is up to that woman to make that decision. There were [also] ceremonies that happened after it was done that were beneficial for the women and their family.”
Curley is the executive director of Indigenous Lifeways, an Indigenous women-led nonprofit that prioritizes matriarchal Indigenous beliefs and leads discussions on environmental racism and sexual violence in New Mexico. Curley’s mother started the organization and passed it down to her, and she hopes to pass it on to her daughters. Curley likens SB8 to the history of the U.S. government offering money for the scalps of Indigenous people and notes that this isn’t the first time federal and local governments have viewed Indigenous cultural practices that far out-date the first European colonizers as a threat.
“Those [lawsuits] are bounties for Indigenous people,” said Curley. “It seems like history is repeating itself all over again.”
Abortion restrictions are another form of colonial violence
The generational trauma of colonial violence continues to resonate among Indigenous people in the present, affecting familial bonding and the mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being of survivors and their descendants. Indigenous families suffered from attempts by the U.S. government to break those familial and cultural bonds through institutions like the boarding schools where Indigenous children, who’d been forcibly taken from their families, were stripped of their culture, language, and traditions through violence to “kill the Indian, save the man.”
It took more than a century before Indigenous parents gained the legal right to deny placement of their children in off-reservation schools, but restrictions on Indigenous parental power and bodily autonomy didn’t end when the boarding schools did. Not long after boarding schools could no longer take Indigenous children from their homes, the Hyde Amendment was introduced, blocking federal funding for abortions through other federal programs like the Indian Health Services (IHS), which is responsible for serving federally recognized Indigenous tribes. The prohibition on offering abortion as part of IHS reproductive health services is yet another disruption of traditional family structures and matriarchial gender norms that once supported bodily autonomy.
This isn’t the first time IHS reproductive care practices contradicted its stated purpose. IHS was created to maintain the welfare of tribal members as a treaty responsibility for health care of federally recognized tribes. Not only has IHS historically failed to provide quality health care, many Indigenous people were robbed of their right to carry children in what has been called “modern genocide.” Under the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act of 1970, over 25% of Indigenous women who received health care through IHS were sterilized over the span of six years.
“We’ve always historically and systematically been oppressed and have been targeted by the U.S. government and by medical professionals,” Curley said. “We’re always kind of wondering, ‘Is IHS going to sterilize us again?’”
Despite whatever warranted unease pregnant Indigenous people may have about obtaining health services through IHS, it’s often the only provider for reproductive health care in or near reservations. Curley has to rely on the IHS in Gallup, New Mexico, as the University of New Mexico’s hospital is hours away, reflecting how transportation and access to reproductive health resources are often the biggest barriers to receiving care.
Indigenous Women Rising (IWR), founded by three Indigenous women, has considerable familiarity with navigating those barriers. IWR’s abortion fund provides varied funding for gas, food, child care, hotel rooms, transportation, and money—anything that might be a barrier to a safe and successful abortion. Nicole Martin, a Navajo, Laguna, Chiricahua Apache, Zuni woman and founding member of IWR, said that the organization has started seeing calls for assistance coming in from Texas. Martin also noted how some of the people who reach out to them for help aren’t just trying to get an abortion.
“Some of the callers are in unsafe situations at home,” Martin said. “They can’t imagine bringing another life to experience what they’re going through.”
American Indian and Alaskan Native women experience disproportionately high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault. More than half of American Indian and Alaskan Native women experience sexual violence in their lifetimes, according to a report from the National Institute of Justice. Martin believes that this violence against women and other marginalized genders is a continuation of colonial and settler colonial attempts to annihilate Indigenous peoples.
“People who are capable of becoming pregnant, bringing life into the world, they’re considered sacred,” Martin said. “They have that important role of passing down knowledge, teaching stories, traditions. They were always targeted because that was the most impactful way for them to further colonize.”
Reproductive justice won’t be achieved by sidelining Indigenous people
The current onslaught of initiatives like SB8 that severely curtail abortion access and legal challenges like Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that seek to overturn Roe v. Wade is entirely recognizable to Indigenous advocates like Curley, who refers to these attempts as RAT policies: the relocation, assimilation, and termination acts. Only this time Curley said, “everyone’s a target now.”
“These policies and bans, they’re inherently racist, they’re inherently classist,” Martin said.
Even with these increasingly higher stakes, both Curley and Martin say that mainstream reproductive justice movements continue to miss the mark with the lack of Indigenous perspectives at the forefront of these movements.
“We’re continuously left out. The fight for our narrative and fight for our voice and our stories is the starting point,” Curley said.
Martin agreed, pointing out the divide between white women and women of color regarding reproductive justice. White feminist goals have failed to address the intersections of oppression that women of color face in the fight for reproductive justice. Mainstream reproductive justice movements would do well to bridge this gap by listening to and learning from Indigenous reproductive justice advocates because they’ve been grappling with large-scale attempts to restrict the autonomy of pregnant people since before the Hyde amendment. And they’ve had some successes in fighting back.
When IWR was founded in 2013 by Rachel Lorenzo, Albuquerque, New Mexico, was attempting to pass its own abortion ban after 20 weeks. Lorenzo realized there wasn’t any input from Indigenous communities and, despite being inundated with death threats and online stalking, helped to successfully defeat the initiative in collaboration with other groups like Indigenous Lifeways.
“It just shows how much more work we have to do and how much more we have to keep telling our truths and keep fighting for reproductive justice and gender justice,” Curley said. “We have to, not just for ourselves, but for the future generations [too] because it affects them as well.”
Since defeating the Albuquerque abortion initiative, Curley has some hope. That achievement wouldn’t have been possible without the immense support from different voices coming together for a common cause and collectively demanding access to reproductive care for every pregnant person and the autonomy to choose what’s best for themselves. She believes it’s a model that offers a way forward for reproductive justice movements with a fighting chance for success.
“What I’ve experienced this year is the power of our voices when we unite, when we all come together, when we all have a united voice from all different religions, from different races, from whatever background you come from,” she said.
Until that time comes, she suggests donating to organizations that help fund abortions with familial care and consideration, like IWR.
“My colleagues, we’ve put together care packages to send to them afterwards to let them know we’re here for them,” Martin said. “We’re honored that people entrust us to help them along their journey of navigating their life.”