Jun 30, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Indigenous tribes push back on calls to open abortion clinics on federal lands

Illustration of a caduceus and a prescription pad on a collage of torn paper

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Representatives for some Indigenous tribes tell Axios they have no plans to set up abortion clinics on their lands and would take offense at any non-Native Americans, including progressives, telling them what to do.

The big picture: The Biden administration has made clear it has no plans to pursue such moves, telling progressives who leaned on them to set up abortion clinics on federal land in red states that they're underestimating the legal risks and other complications.

  • Vice President Kamala Harris told CNN, "It's not, right now, what we are discussing." White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters there are "dangerous ramifications" to providing abortions on federal lands.
  • But tribal leaders and legal experts are speaking out as well to ensure their position is clear.

What they're saying: "It's an overreach for people to assume, or presume that a tribe would want to do this in the first place," Stacy Leeds, a professor of law and leadership at Arizona State University Law who previously served as a Cherokee Nation Supreme Court justice, told Axios.

  • "We have an arc of historic oppression that's really undermined a tribal ability to respond," Lauren van Schilfgaarde, the director of UCLA Law School's tribal legal development clinic and a member of the Cochiti Pueblo, told Axios. "And so the idea that tribes have some magic balm, it's just frustrating."
  • Even if tribes did want to set up private abortion clinics, Leeds noted, "It would have to not have any federal money because it would be restricted with the Hyde Amendment. And it would need to involve tribal citizens only."

It's also unfair for non-Natives to make safe harbor demands given the U.S.'s history of exploitation, van Schilfgaarde said.

  • Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma said in a statement to Native News Online that "Cherokee citizens hold a range of views on this subject. Now is not the time for politicians or candidates for office to use the issue to demonize Tribes and drive a wedge between citizens..."

Driving the news: Following the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, U.S. Rep. Alexandra Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) demanded the Biden administration consider building abortion facilities on federal lands located in red states.

  • Warren, Murray (D-Wash.), and 23 other Senate Democrats also signed a letter asking Biden to take executive action.

State of play: Indian Health Service (IHS) clinics — where most Natives go for medical care — are banned from performing abortions except in certain circumstances because of the Hyde Amendment, which passed in 1976 and prevents government funds for abortion.

  • The clinics are vastly underfunded and reproductive health care is "really underserved" in Native communities, said van Schilfgaarde, citing disproportionately high infant and maternal death rates among Indigenous people.

Between the lines: Establishing abortion clinics on National Park Service or Bureau of Land Management land also would face a litany of legal and logistical challenges, with battles over water rights and where clinics can operate in areas where there are endangered species.

Worth noting: The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that states can prosecute non-Natives who commit crimes against Native Americans on tribal land. Thus, a non-Native provider performing an abortion for a Native person on tribal land could be penalized.

  • And Public Law 280 extends state criminal law to Native lands in Alaska, California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, among other states.

Go deeper: Indigenous women fear for their safety in a post-Roe America

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