Quiet crisis will be heard: Pine Ridge rez Prez plans women’s clinic

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South Dakota women are not taking an abortion ban lying down. Bill HB1215 is the only anti-abortion bill in the U.S. which contains no exceptions for rape, incest or women’s health. This makes it far and away the most extreme ban of 11 states proposing bans, said Sarah Stoesz, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota & South Dakota.

A new coalition, South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families (SDCHF) formed rapidly in response to Gov. Michael Rounds’ signing of the abortion ban bill in early March. More than 600 people are working to garner 16,728 petition signatures by June 19. Kate Looby, state director of Planned Parenthood South Dakota said they received 1,200 signatures after the first three days and people are “ecstatic to sign the petition—people can’t sign the petition fast enough!”

Looby says the abortion ban is “so extreme and unrepresentative of the people of South Dakota. It’s unconstitutional. People need access to health care and information about reproductive services.” Stoesz said, “I wish the people who are putting so much energy into banning abortion would put equal energy into making contraception accessible to all women. They would be far more effective at reducing abortion. It’s very hard to get birth control if you don’t have health insurance.”

It’s likely the abortion ban will be put to voters on a November ballot. Current polls show 57 percent of South Dakotans would vote against the ban. If this occurs, the bill will be rescinded. If voters vote pro-ban, Planned Parenthood will combat the proposed abortion ban all the way up to the Supreme Court, where the outcome is uncertain because of a new balance of power there on issues like Roe vs. Wade.

Among the 15 members of SDCHF are attorneys, doctors, state representatives and legislators, students and coalition co-chair Cecilia Fire Thunder, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of Pine Ridge, S.D. Fire Thunder, the first woman president on the Pine Ridge reservation, is known by many as being tenacious. Fire Thunder worked as a nurse in women’s health care clinics for several years. During those years she saw numerous victims of domestic violence and rape.

Now Fire Thunder proposes to put a family health clinic on her Pine Ridge reservation land, to provide family planning education and reproductive health services including abortion.

Fire Thunder plans to open the clinic regardless of whether the anti-abortion ban goes into effect. Right now she’s focusing her efforts on getting the petition signatures gathered. She has six lawyers working on the legalities of opening a clinic. As a sovereign nation under federal rather than state jurisdiction, having a clinic that can provide abortions appears feasible.

Fire Thunder made international news when she told Tim Giago, president of Native American Journalists Foundation, Inc., “To me, it is now a question of sovereignty. I will personally establish a clinic on my own land which is within the boundaries of the Pine Ridge Reservation where the state of South Dakota has absolutely no jurisdiction.”

During our interview she said she already had been planning a family health clinic—the ban gave her more incentive. “It’s a response to the ban on abortions and particularly for women who have been raped. There’s no education on family planning on the Pine Ridge rez. As a president of my nation, I have to say, glaringly missing is a really good place to come to learn about choices.”

Fire Thunder refers to the large number of unreported rapes on reservations as a “quiet crisis.” Half of the 38,000 enrolled members of the tribe are 18 and under. “So we have a high population of childbearing women.” She estimated as many as 80 percent of rapes go unreported on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The SDCHF website confirms a majority of rape cases go unreported and most women don’t seek immediate medical attention. The U.S. Department of Justice reports 63 percent of completed rapes and 74 percent of attempted sexual assaults against females were not reported to the police. According to SDCHF’s website, a study of acquaintance rape survivors indicated that 97 percent informed at least one close confidant, while only 28 percent informed the police. SDCHF said the rate of rape in South Dakota has increased by 24 percent since 2000, with 336 rape offences reported in 2004.

Karen Artichoker, management team director of Cangleska, Inc., a Pine Ridge domestic violence and sexual abuse center, said they saw 580 women last year, and helped several thousand more via advocacy. She said that seven years ago, according to criminal investigators and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), an average of 35 rapes per month were reported on each of three South Dakota reservations: Rosebud, Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge. Artichoker said while law enforcement officials say they’ve only received a few calls reporting rape in the last year, there are many more that go unreported. “In our exerience as Indian women working in this shelter, we hear it over and over and over. We informally ask, by a show of hands, and see that our area matches the national statistics—one out of three women have been raped—and we’re asked by various women here, ‘Don’t you think that’s low?’”

Why are fewer rapes being reported? Artichoker gave a few reasons. “There’s retaliation. There’s low prosecution. The Federal Government prosecutes the crime. We have the authority but not the capacity. We have sentencing restrictions. Anywhere else, the criminal would get 15 years in prison. They only get six months here. You have to relive the trauma repeatedly with no repercussions.”

The Pine Ridge reservation population is small and many people are related to each other. Artichoker noted there’s more of a stigma attached to reporting marital rape or rape by people in the family or extended family. For example, at the shelter Artichoker has heard, “Three cousins raped me while I was pregnant.” She said, “People will say, ‘It’s your relative,’ or … ‘maybe she was drinking …’”

Access is a major problem as well. Artichoker noted poverty prevents women from obtaining services because of the long drives and expense. “We hear women say they’d get an abortion if they could.” Looby noted access is a major problem as well. Women have to drive over six hours to Sioux Falls. “We have some funding to help with travel expenses because of philanthropy from donors. We’re not a Title 10 provider so there are no federal family planning funds for us.” She said if someone can’t afford an abortion, “we’re not going to turn anyone away.”

Compounding these existing obstacles is the correlation between violence and women’s addiction to drugs and alcohol. Artichoker said, “There are a number of women that have been serially raped and develop addictions as a result. A lifetime of victimization can lead to alcoholism, making it difficult to participate in a criminal justice system, to show up for court a number of times.”

Bearing the child of a rapist impacts family dynamics. Artichoker and the staff have seen this frequently at the shelter. “Some women say, ‘My mother says she would raise the child if it were her. I wanted an abortion. I’ve been alienated from my family because I can’t stand to look at the face that looks like the rapist.’”

The nearest treatment for a rape victim is 150 miles away in Rapid City. Fire Thunder noted the victim might have to wait overnight and into the next day to be seen by a doctor who may administer emergency contraception, known as a morning after pill. It is not a medical abortion, it’s a medication used to prevent pregnancy. By the time she receives it, it may have lost its efficacy.

Fire Thunder said people living in cities and towns have better and faster access to health care services for victims of rape, including the morning after pill. “These things don’t happen in a rural community like ours. There are women who are raped who have no recompense or recourse. Rural communities don’t have the services cities do. What people don’t understand is, these things don’t just happen in other parts of the world; it’s right here in our backyard.”

The clinic would be open to anyone, Fire Thunder said. It would be frequented the most by clients from Eastern Wyoming, Nebraska and Western South Dakota. Pine Ridge and nearby Rosebud reservation are two of the poorest counties in the United States. What if people cannot afford an abortion? “We are a very poor community. We’ll provide services whether you can afford them or not,” Fire Thunder responded.

Naturally, when you build a family planning clinic, not only will the people seeking services come, but also the protesters. Fire Thunder’s response to this is firm: “Protestors can protest outside our borders. If they’re within our borders, they have to follow our laws. We have the right to exclude them.”

Fire Thunder is working on improving law enforcement. They need to address the problems of “drugs, alcohol and especially meth amphetamines—with long-term use of meth, sexual activity increases. There’s more sexual assault as a result. We’re looking at issues of increased sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.”

Other reservations may follow suit. Fire Thunder is excited about the possibilities of inspiring and working with tribes across the nation facing similar difficulties and potential loss of the right to choose. She said 99 percent of the responses to her Yahoo site, from around the world, have been positive. “It was my responsibility to open discussion and move forward. The abortion ban is unconstitutional. I intend to take the lead in upholding the Constitution. My heart, body, mind, spirit and land are responsible to stepping up to the plate for all women’s rights,” Fire Thunder said.

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