We talk all day about reproductive rights, but who are we leaving out of the conversation? With all the rhetoric surrounding women and their bodies, we often forget that many women are disproportionately impacted by legislation and biases that prevent women from accessing health care. Black women, Latina women, and Native American women are all disproportionately impacted by these laws and unwritten rules that govern our bodies. We need to talk about the the plight of Native American women and their lack of access to basic reproductive health care.
For those who don’t know, the Hyde amendment bars all public funds from being disbursed for the purposes of abortion. What does this mean for Native women? Well, for the women who live on reservations and utilize the Indian Health Services, abortion is basically out of reach. 82 percent of IHS units were found to be non-compliant with the Hyde amendment’s allowance for victims of rape and incest or when the mother’s life is in danger. To get an abortion as an Native American woman living on a reservation, you have to leave your home and travel. And we all know how cheap travelling for an abortion is. Plus, Native American women are more likely to be in poverty than any other ethnic group; and, of course, low-income women have the hardest time securing funds for an abortion at all.
That isn’t where it stops, however. Until mid-October of this year, there was a crisis in access to Plan B on reservations. For two years now, the rule has been that anyone over the age of 17 can access Plan B in pharmacies with no prescription (with exceptions for “morality” in some states, of course) but the IHS wasn’t following that rule. In addition, very few IHS clinics stocked Plan B at all. This meant that Native women weren’t able to access a very basic, fundamental health care.
In addition, birth control rates among Native American women are some of the lowest out of all groups. This has been attributed to shame and secrecy among Natives, but has also been linked to poor health care on reservations. Teen pregnancy rates are linked to low school completion rates and high rates of lifelong poverty.
Reproductive justice isn’t limited to Native American women’s bodies, however. Their children suffer, too. Native babies are 30 percent more likely to die of SIDS and Native American women have the second lowest rate of breastfeeding. This is a symptom of the poor educational reach and disparate impact sexuality education laws have on Native American women.
This article doesn’t even touch on the routine, forced sterilization of Native women that continued into the 1970s and still happens in some prisons; the forced abduction of their children to Christian boarding schools that prevented culture from being passed along through generations, leading to dying languages and religions; the epidemic of missing and abducted Native women that is unparalleled by any other group of missing women; the high, nearly unbelievable rates of sexual assault that are mainly stranger rapes, which sets Native women apart from other groups of women who are more likely to be assaulted by those they know; or the likelihood for Native women to remain in poverty which stunts growth and encourages the cycle of poverty.
So what can we do to improve the lives of Native women and their children? For one, we can demand access to health care for all women by fighting to repeal the Hyde amendment. Second, we can argue for guaranteed access to basic health care on reservations. Third, we can expand sexuality education access on reservations and make it accessible for all women and children, including childbirth classes. Finally, we can be allies. Listening to Native women and hearing their stories, solutions, and ideas, then amplifying their voices is the best way we can help. We have an obligation to do what Native women tell us is right; their lives, their bodies, are the ones at stake. And lastly; when Native women speak, we must listen.