Native women fight for access to reproductive healthcare

Sunny Clifford is a NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota board member.

I grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, born and raised. I am a child of eight siblings. My mom was married twice and had four children from each marriage. She ended up a single mother of eight. Life was hard growing up. As soon as I found out what my body was capable of (around the age of 12) I didn’t want to be like my mom. I didn’t want to have eight children. We were hungry, sometimes shoeless. I didn’t want to bring that suffering upon anyone. So here I sit, childless, and not unhappy. I have a dog and she’s the best. I waited a really long time to be a dog owner. I want all women to have this right to decide if they want children or not, and when they want them.

The lack of access to reproductive healthcare in South Dakota, especially on an Indian reservation, is astonishing. You’d think you weren’t in the United States, you know with the woman’s right to choose and Roe v. Wade, those freedoms that make life feel as if you have some control over it.

I wasn’t aware of my lack of reproductive rights until last year when I read a report about Native women’s lack of access to Plan B, the morning after pill. (click here for the Roundtable Report on the Access of Plan B as an over-the-counter (OTIC) within Indian Health Service). I read that we are entitled to get the emergency contraceptive through Indian Health Service (IHS). I was shocked and upset that I hadn’t known this before. The reality is that for most of us living on reservations, it has been extremely difficult to access over-the-counter Plan B (however, significant improvements have been made in the past few months due the activism work of incredible Native women). I sat there and thought to myself: Why are so many women being denied this right when the rest of the women in America are not? Is it because we are Indian? Yes, it was because of our race; it was because of our location.

We are denied so many other crucial reproductive rights. Since Cecelia Fire Thunder’s impeachment from her position as tribal president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in 2006—because she stood up for women’s rights in the state of South Dakota—the tribe has outlawed abortion on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. And since then, the state of South Dakota has instated mandatory counseling sessions and a 72-hour wait period prior to obtaining abortion care. Oh, and let’s not forget the numerous other anti-choice, anti-women laws that have been passed recently. Where is our freedom? Where is our choice? Where are our rights?

I feel blessed (most of the time, especially when I’m not menstruating because it’s so utterly painful) to be a woman. I love my body. I love having breasts. I love the idea that I can be host to another being inside my body. It’s beautiful. However, other times, as an Indigenous woman, I feel powerless because of policies that have been forced upon my peoples’ bodies since the days of early colonization.

Let’s reminisce for a sweet moment while I try to take you down a memory lane you have no personal recollection of. In a land not far away from here, on Indian reservations, there once were a people, in particular, a group of women, who were in complete control of their reproductive systems. They knew what plants and teas to consume, they knew those things as medicine for their bodies. They knew when it was appropriate for them to have children and how many they wanted. Their world was turned upside down when the settlers decided that the Native American lands and people were theirs for the taking. This was over a hundred years ago; it still has not ceased.

We cannot feel sorry for our circumstances – okay if you must, take a second or so to feel bad – but then get enraged. Get enraged because we should be the only people to decide for ourselves what to do with our bodies, our precious, beautiful, life-giving bodies (or non life-giving bodies, that should be our choice).

Denying Native American women, and especially those women living in rural areas across the country (and wherever else these violations occur), access to reproductive healthcare is unacceptable. We must all join together and reclaim our bodies, reclaim our minds, reclaim our lives. We do not need Congressmen telling us how we should run our woman parts.

Click here to sign Sunny’s petition on for IHS to stop blocking access to Plan B.