Reproductive care has always been a complex topic for people of color in the United States. Since the beginnings of colonization – through the horrors of slavery and the forced sterilization efforts of the last century – our ability to control whether or not we bring life into the world and how we are allowed to interact with our offspring once they are born has been either challenged or completely wrenched from our grasp. It is not surprising that this set of varied experiences, tied together by a thread of oppression, would yield different responses by those affected. Some of us reject any effort to impose any further control of our bodies, and some view abortion as being inextricably connected to this country’s long-term efforts to control the number of Black and Brown children born into it.
I know that some view all life – including the unborn – as sacred, and oppose abortion on such grounds. I am further aware that some fervently debate when life actually begins. So to simplify what I am trying to convey, I will plainly offer that, in my opinion, life does begin at conception, and that this does not alter my position on abortion in the least. I am pro-choice. I do not believe that all life is sacred, or that we live in a world in which such a principle is treated as fact in any instance outside of societal efforts to control what happens inside the bodies of those who are able to bear children.
As an Indigenous woman, I view any state control of my body as an act of colonial violence. I see restrictions on abortion access no differently than the forcible sterilization of Native women or the mass theft of our children. When the same force that has occupied our land and raped and ravaged our communities – the very force that has robbed us of our heritage and made a mockery of our culture – attempts to control any aspect of our bodies, that act is nothing short of state violence. It is the oppressive will of a power structure that would occupy both our land and our bodies.
Reproductive domination is the theft of Native agency, which has always been at the heart of our experiences as Native people living the grotesque realities that this society masks with its myth of US greatness. As Nicolle Gonzales, a Diné midwife and health-care advocate recently reminded us, the government’s efforts to annihilate us through forced sterilization continued through the 1970s, when “the Indian Health Service oversaw the nonconsensual sterilization of approximately 40 percent of women of childbearing age.”
This theft of Native reproductive agency is a culturally and historically embedded aspect of the colonial experience.
Last week, Pope Francis captivated much of the country with his visit to the United States. Like many liberals who are enthusiastic about topics like combating climate change, the pope established during his visit that he is unwilling to do anything more than pay lip service to Native struggle. His canonization of Junípero Serra was an insult to Native people everywhere, and proved that any claims the pontiff might make about regretting the crimes committed against Indigenous people are utterly hollow. It’s important to note, however, that the Catholic Church’s position on reproductive rights and care also reflect that same reality.
From the doctrine of discovery’s influence of manifest destiny, to the Church’s present support of legal measures that would control how and when women – especially Brown and Black women – bring life into the world, or choose not to, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has been representative of oppression and social control grounded in supremacy. Acknowledging as much is not a condemnation of Catholics as individuals. It is merely a statement of fact conveyed by one whose people have been subject to that oppression and control, and its horrific consequences, ever since colonialism and Christianity reached our shores.
The fact is, the Catholic Church’s relationship with Native peoples has both fed and mirrored that of the US government. Just as Serra’s missions perpetuated the enslavement, torture, rape and murder of Native people, so too, has the power structure of this society.
And now, the issue is forced birth and access to reproductive health care. Both conservatives within this government and a pope celebrated by a liberal fandom the world over are demanding that those who can bear children – including those whose ability to do so has already been historically twisted, controlled and stolen – submit to the will of a hierarchy of white men who would decide what happens to our bodies.
This is colonial violence. It is domination. It is the suppression of our liberation. And it cannot be permitted.
If Native people who are able to bear children embrace faiths or ideologies that steer them away from abortion, that is their right – a right that should be protected by any means necessary. But the same is true for all aspects of reproductive choice. We must reclaim our bodies from the state. We must defend ourselves against the further infliction of colonial violence.
We must not allow any aspect of our humanity to be the province of this government.
Every Native life is a victory against colonialism, but so is every act that affirms our self-determination. We are freedom fighters, born in resistance, and this government continues to make battlefields of our bodies. We must repel their invasion. We must do this because the survival of our people is not enough. We must have the freedom to choose how we live and what we bring into this world.
As a Native woman, my liberation demands that the Hyde Amendment be abolished, and that efforts to defund Planned Parenthood be thwarted. Native people must be free to decide the course of our own destinies because our freedom will never be realized as long as the state-sanctioned control of our bodies is allowed to continue.