Indian tribe challenges
abortion law with clinic
Sioux group asserts reservation sovereignty,
will offer procedure after South Dakota ban
Posted: April 1, 2006
5:00 p.m. Eastern
South Dakota's near-total ban on abortion, passed last month by the state legislature, is being challenged by the leader of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, who is asserting tribal sovereignty and proposing to bypass the legislation by building an abortion clinic on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Cecelia Fire Thunder, 59, a former nurse and the tribe's first female president, told the Baltimore Sun the recent ban was "an eye-opener."
"An Indian reservation is a sovereign nation, and we're going to take it as far as we can to exercise our sovereignty," she said. "As Indian women, we fight many battles. This is just another battle we have to fight."
As WorldNetDaily reported, South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds signed the highly restrictive anti-abortion bill aimed ultimately at overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. The legislation bans abortion in nearly every case and punishes doctors who perform one with a $5,000 fine and five years in prison. The bill allows abortion only in the event a mother's life is in danger, making no exception for rape or incest.
Fire Thunder said it was the prohibition on abortion in cases of rape that is behind her proposal to bring a "Planned Parenthood-type clinic" onto the reservation. She is currently soliciting donations.
"People need to open up their eyes in this country. Women are being raped at a tremendously high rate in this nation," she said. "In a perfect world, you will report the rape, the police will respond, they will take you to the emergency room. You will tell your story, you will get emergency contraception. We don't live in a perfect world. In rural America, that does not happen."
Fire Thunder is one of 16 co-leaders of a group gathering signatures on petitions to place the abortion ban before the voters. "We're collecting signatures like crazy," she told the Rapid City Journal. "I'm very confident. We're not living in the 18th century."
Given the state's low population, only 16,728 signatures are needed to place the referendum on the November ballot. South Dakota Planned Parenthood, which operates the state's sole abortion clinic, has said it will challenge the law in court.
Casino-style gambling, once restricted to Nevada and Atlantic City, has become widespread in the U.S. through Indian gaming which operates with very little oversight by the states. The Bureau of Indian Affairs recognizes 561 tribal governments in the U.S., a significant number if other tribes seek to use their sovereignty to circumvent any future abortion bans.
Fire Thunder said wants the clinic to offer contraception and sex education as well as abortions and sees the clinic serving all women, not just those living on the reservation.
South Dakota Attorney General Larry Long admitted there's little the state could do if Pine Ridge began offering abortions.
"Roe vs. Wade is a federal law," he said. "Pine Ridge is a reservation that is under the jurisdiction of federal laws more than state laws."
But Long is insistent that Indian sovereignty only goes so far. Not just anyone can get an abortion on the reservation, he said. The state's ban would cover providing and receiving abortions if the provider and the woman were both non-Indian.
Charon Asetoyer, director of the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center in Lake Andes, S.D., disputed Long's interpretation of the law, saying she doesn't believe South Dakota can prosecute someone who hasn't broken federal or tribal laws. Finding a Native American doctor to perform abortions "can be done" without problem, she said.
Still, Long questions how much support Fire Thunder will have for an abortion clinic from tribal members. "The Oglalas are basically pretty pro-life people, by and large," he said.
Charon Asetoyer, director of the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center in Lake Andes, S.D.
Asetoyer disagrees with Long's interpretation of the tribal relationship and said she isn't sure the state could prosecute someone who is breaking neither federal nor tribal laws. She said it should be no problem finding a Native American doctor to perform abortions. "It can be done," she said.
Cecelia Fire Thunder
"We just want to make sure that something is done for women who make that decision," said Fire Thunder. "All we can do is provide that to them, no questions asked. It's their choice. It's between her and God and that unborn baby. And I honor that."