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Indigenous Abortion Access Shouldn’t Be Tied to Western Religious Values

Treaties require the U.S. government to provide health care to Indigenous people — this includes abortion.

Treaties require the U.S. government to provide health care to Indigenous people, and health care includes abortion.

As a Diné woman raised by my maternal grandmother and my sisters, I know that respecting someone’s right to make their own reproductive health decisions is a value deeply rooted in our sovereign Indigenous communities. In our matrilineal society, women have always had direct autonomy over our lives and our reproductive health care decisions. Historical accounts show women and pregnant people in our society have engaged in some form of abortion over generations. I support abortion access because of my Indigenous matriarchal values and traditions — not in spite of them.

Shí éí Kandace Littlefoot yinishé. (I am Kandace Littlefoot.)

Tséníjiíkinií nishłį, Kinliichíinii bashishchiin, Tsédeeshgizhnii dashicheii, dóó Táchii’nii dashinalí, ákót’éego Diné Asdzáán nishłį. (I am born for the Honey Comb Rock People/Cliff Dwelling People, born to the Red House People, my maternal grandfather is the Rock Gap People and my paternal grandfather is the Red Running Into the Water People; in this way, I am a Diné woman.)

Today, the United States Congress continues to control the “Indian problem” by regulating the bodies and reproductive decisions of people like me, our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts and all Indigenous relatives through policies like the Hyde Amendment. As we celebrated New Mexico’s first-ever statewide Indigenous Peoples’ Day this year and head into American Indian History Month in November, we must continue to push honest conversations about the failure of the U.S. government to meet treaty obligations with our tribal sovereign nations. The failure to meet these obligations has led to systemic inequities faced by Indigenous people, including access to the health care we need across our lives.

Under centuries of treaties, many of which were forced upon tribal nations and signed under duress, federally recognized tribes promised to: be lawful and relinquish millions of acres of land; give up the authority to raise an army or wage war against the United States; and not to kill any white man, among other things. In turn, the U.S. government agreed to provide tribal citizens the basics of education, food distribution, clothing, “protection” from foreign and domestic attacks, and health care. Soon after these treaties were signed, the Indigenous people of sovereign nations were corralled onto reservations; through our resiliency, we have survived genocide, removal of our children and forced sterilization, among other atrocities.

Unfortunately, the promises of the treaties have never been fulfilled or executed. For decades, the U.S. has failed to meet treaty obligations with sovereign nations in part because of the federal prohibition on using federal dollars for abortion services through the Hyde Amendment, which continues to be passed by the U.S. Congress. The Hyde Amendment, first passed in 1976, prohibits the use of federal money to fund abortion — which in practice means that people who get their health care through programs like Medicare or the Indian Health Service (IHS) are effectively blocked from accessing abortion care. Although IHS is federally mandated to provide health care to Native Americans, IHS fails every day to provide high-quality health care among Indigenous communities.

In New Mexico, a predominately rural state where abortion is safe and legal, there are 23 federally recognized tribes, with Indigenous people making up more than 10 percent of the state’s population. More than 228,000 Indigenous people in New Mexico are expected to receive health care through 12 IHS clinics, of which only half offer reproductive health services. But because of the Hyde Amendment, Indigenous people who need an abortion may have to first secure additional health care coverage on top of IHS or find cash to pay for their own abortion. They also may have to travel to our urban center for appointments with unfamiliar providers far from home. For someone living in the heart of the Navajo Nation, it would take approximately 230 miles or 3.5 hours to travel to Albuquerque to access abortion services. This is the reality for many Indigenous people who live in rural areas in the Southwest.

I know that we can each hold our own moral views on abortion while trusting others to make health care decision for themselves. Together, we have to understand that in the communities I come from, there are people who will never have an abortion — we must honor that. Most importantly, whether we want to have children or not, those are our decisions to make. These decisions should not be in the hands of the U.S. government, nor shaped by the views of white men in institutions who have colonized our homelands and have used assimilation tactics to eliminate our people.

Growing up on the reservation, my grandmother put all she had into raising my sisters and I. Every day, my grandmother instilled in us the understanding that as Indigenous women, we are sacred, and our bodies are sacred, too. Yet Indigenous women and people have suffered under the U.S. government for generations.

I know and love people who were forced and coerced into sterilization, and now I know and love people who have been restricted from receiving abortion services. By prohibiting access to abortion through IHS, the United States is imposing a Western religious system over the bodies and lives of Indigenous women. A person’s dignity, health and safety should never be compromised by the religious views of someone else, and especially not by the U.S. Congress. It is time to make sure that the religious beliefs of a few don’t jeopardize access to health care that may be necessary for Indigenous people across our communities.

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