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Long before Roe v. Wade was overturned, Indigenous women faced barriers to abortion

Blu Cornell and her mom Sarah Adams Cornell
Allison Herrera / KOSU
Blu Cornell (left) and her mom Sarah Adams-Cornell (right) remember having "the talk" when Blu decided she wanted to be sexually active. Sarah said wanting to keep her daughter safe outweighed the awkwardness.

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision came down Friday overturning Roe v. Wade, Oklahoma’s attorney general announced it had triggered a state law banning the practice in Oklahoma.

Later, Indian Health Services released a statement saying it would still provide access to safe reproductive care, in certain circumstances. So, what does that mean for Indigenous women in the state who often depend on both systems?

21-year-old Blu Cornell remembers having the "talk" with her mom when she wanted to become sexually active.

"It was a little uncomfortable at first," said Cornell, who is a student, artist and activist in Matriarch, along with her mom. "But I think it's kind of uncomfortable for everybody just starting to, like, have those conversations with, especially your parents."

Blu's mom Sarah Adams-Cornell says helping her daughter make safe and healthy choices outweighed the awkwardness.

"You have to be able to have that conversation with your partner to say: what kind of birth control are we going to use? Have you been tested? What are we going to do if we get pregnant?," said Adams-Cornell.

As a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, Blu can use Indian Health Service for much of her care, but for birth control, she went to Planned Parenthood. Part of the reason is that, until recently, birth control wasn’t widely available at IHS clinics, and even now, access to emergency contraceptives including Plan B is still sporadic and often requires a prescription. And if she did decide to get an abortion, many IHS clinics contract out their services to state service providers. So, in Oklahoma, she likely wouldn’t have access.

"I would have to travel somewhere to get it too," she said. "Since everything happened here in Oklahoma, it would increase, like, another financial burden on me."

But because nearly 40 percent of Oklahoma is tribal land that isn’t subject to criminal prosecution from the state, some people are asking: why couldn’t someone open a clinic on tribal land and provide abortion services?

Stacey Leeds, professor of Law at Arizona State University, says not so fast.

"So many people have posed this question of whether the solution to not having access to abortion clinics within states would be to put a clinic on an Indian reservation," said Leeds. "And, you know, it's a fundamentally bad idea for a host of reasons."

Tribal reservations, she says, are not a safe haven to escape laws people are opposed to. She says Native women already have a fraught history with access to birth control and abortion, and Indian Health Service Clinics are banned from performing abortions except in certain circumstances because of the Hyde Amendment, which was passed in 1976 and prevents the use of government funds for abortion.

"And to not know of that history and then suggest this type of action just caught me is extremely tone-deaf and one dimensional," said Leeds.

It's that fraught history that inspired Indigenous Women Rising, a group based out of Albuquerque that helps Indigenous women travel to states where abortion is still legal.

Rachael Lorenzo is the group's director. After they won an award for making traditional regalia more breastfeeding friendly, they started getting messages from women about abortion with questions like these:

  • "I didn't know that Indian Health Services wouldn't cover abortions."
  • "My doctor won't even talk to me about abortions."
  • "My insurance won't cover abortion."
  • "Why doesn't Medicaid cover abortion?"

Lorenzo said in 2018, they received 50 requests from people needing help to fund their abortion. Since the Texas law went into effect functionally outlawing the procedure in 2021, they’ve served nearly 600. Some of those women live up to six hours away from the nearest IHS clinic, and that access barrier to healthcare, not just abortion, is something Lorenzo wants addressed.

"It is our right as Indigenous people," said Lorenzo about getting healthcare through IHS. "It's a treaty right — health care specifically for Native people in this country is something that we are entitled to. So, while it may not be enough, it is a lifeline."

The most recent statistics available tracking abortion among Indigenous women are from 2002. For nearly three years, KOSU has been waiting on updated data about the number of abortions performed at IHS clinics and through contracted third parties. We’ve also asked for clarification on conflicting federal policies about what abortions can be performed by IHS and under what circumstances. To date, we have not received a response.

But after last week’s Supreme Court decision, IHS did release a general statement to the media saying the health and safety of patients remains a priority and that includes safe and comprehensive reproductive services.

Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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