Facing Abortion as a Native American

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader provides an anecdotal look, and I added some statistics:

Coming from a native American reservation, where the drop-out rate is about 50 percent and teen pregnancy is high [see above], I felt pretty accomplished being in the city and in college. So when I got pregnant, my life was over, or so I thought.

I told my then-boyfriend, now husband, and he was beyond happy. In the following days and weeks we talked of things like names and outfits—the easy stuff. Then, reality set in. I’d have to move home. It being on a reservation with very little resources, I had no idea who’d care for my child. I’d have to give up school until I was financially stable to return.

I remember talking with my boyfriend about abortion and how it was the right thing to do, doing everything to justify my reasons. He supported me from the beginning. The next day I changed my mind and decided to take life by the horns and raise this child. But the following day I wasn’t ready to be a mother.

This was an ongoing pattern for almost two months. Feeling depressed and losing my hair from the stress, I decided to walk into a clinic to see what my options were. I can’t remember the doctor’s name for the life of me, but she made me feel comfortable almost immediately. She never persuaded me, but instead listened. I made an appointment that day.

After leaving the clinic I went to the nearest Dairy Queen and spent the last of my money on a milkshake. For the first time in weeks, I felt like I could breathe.

The following week I had my abortion. In the waiting room there was a young girl no older than 16 who cried every two minutes. Her boyfriend, much older than her, told her to stop crying, not being very supportive. I remember sitting there feeling so sorry for her.

In the “surgery room” I remember asking the nurse if she was okay. She reassured me that she was and that she was just “young.” I still think of her.

Next week marks one year. It’s something I do not regret, although I feel guilty about it from time to time. I know I couldn’t have cared for my child the way he or she deserved. All I know is that I’m very fortunate to have walked into a clinic without having to fight protestors to get to the door.

For more background on how abortion affects Native American women, see this FAQ from Carafem, an abortion center in Washington, D.C.:

In the ongoing conversation about abortion, indigenous Americans are oftentimes left out. This is a pretty glaring oversight, since Native American women are over-represented in abortion statistics. … Native American women experience a higher rate of unintended pregnancy than their Caucasian counterparts. These disproportionately high unintended pregnancy rates may lead to more abortions.  

Why does this happen?

Poverty, discrimination, and violence all contribute to an environment that does not support Native American women’s ability to fully control their reproductive health. Indigenous American women have experienced (and continue to experience) harsh mistreatment – from forced sterilization to persistently high rates of rape and sexual assault in their communities. They continue to face barriers that are rooted in historical abuse, lack of resources, and contemporary misunderstanding. Since Native American populations were targeted during the eugenics movement, it is understandable that any conversation around reproductive justice for this population is fraught with cultural trauma and suspicion.

How does this all relate to abortion access?

Federal policies have a disproportionate impact on indigenous American women’s ability to access abortion, since abortions are not performed on reservations. Income inequality and poverty make it even harder for many Native American women to get the care they need. Add to that the fact that the Indian Health Service is non-compliant with its own abortion policy in many of its clinics, and the indigenous American community is neglected and left without reproductive healthcare options. Teenage pregnancy and unintended pregnancy rates continue to increase, signaling that this is an important issue to address.