Tribal Leader Works For Abortion Clinic On Rez
Oglala Sioux Tribe President Cecelia Fire Thunder says a clinic on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation could provide abortions if South Dakota’s new abortion ban goes into effect.
“We’re working on it,” Fire Thunder said in a telephone interview Friday. “This is a free-choice issue. If I were in that situation, I’d want somewhere to go where I’d be taken care of."
The new South Dakota law bans all abortions except to save the life of the mother — with no exceptions for rape or incest.
Fire Thunder said the state law would not apply to the reservation. “We’re a sovereign nation,” she said.
The new law is set to go into effect July 1, but a court challenge almost certainly will delay it, and opponents of the law are already gathering signatures to put it on the ballot in November.
Fire Thunder, in fact, is one of 15 co-leaders of the new South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, which on Friday announced a statewide campaign to overturn the new law.
South Dakota Attorney General Larry Long declined to comment on the proposal, saying he likely would have to write a description of the new law for ballots in November.
Long said that major crimes committed on reservations come under state jurisdiction if they are committed by non-Indians against non-Indians. Other major crimes fall under federal law.
Rapid City attorney Charlie Abourezk, who has experience in Indian law and who has represented tribes and President Fire Thunder, said Indian doctors might be immune from the new state law if abortions were done on a reservation — whether the woman was Indian or non-Indian.
University of South Dakota law professor Frank Pommersheim, an expert in Indian law, agreed that Fire Thunder’s proposal was “potentially workable” — especially if doctors were Indians and if the clinic were on Indian trust land.
Pommersheim said licensing could pose a problem. Physicians licensed by the state of South Dakota could face penalties, but he also said tribes might set up their own licensing procedures.
Long said that Indian Health Service physicians don’t have to be licensed by South Dakota as long as they have licenses from other jurisdictions.
State Rep. Elizabeth Kraus, R-Rapid City, who voted for the new abortion ban, said state legislators did not anticipate a tribal government setting up a clinic. “I think it’s poor policy because I don’t believe in abortion unless it’s to save the life of a mother,” Kraus said. “I don’t believe abortion is the answer to women’s problems.”
Fire Thunder’s proposal will be moot if South Dakota’s new abortion ban never goes into effect. In fact, she predicted a federal court would rule it unconstitutional. But she said if the law did go into effect, she would work to open a clinic, maybe even on land she would donate. “We’ve got lawyers working on it right now,” she said.
Earlier in the week, Fire Thunder told newspaper columnist Tim Giago that she would “personally establish a Planned Parenthood Clinic on my own land.”
Planned Parenthood officials “expressed gratitude” for the offer in a news release Friday but said they didn’t plan to open a reservation clinic.
“It doesn’t have to be Planned Parenthood,” Fire Thunder said Friday.
Fire Thunder has worked as a licensed practical nurse, and she has helped set up community health clinics in Los Angeles. She said the tribe could set up its own clinic. “If we choose to do this, we can.”
Fire Thunder said such a clinic could serve women “from throughout the region.” But she also emphasized the clinic’s local effect. “We want to have a viable option closer to home,” Fire Thunder said in a written statement issued late Friday afternoon. “Of course, in our culture, children are sacred, but women are sacred too, and somebody who has been victimized by rape or incest should have options.”
Contact Bill Harlan at 394-8424 or
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