Abortion Is a Religious Right for Indigenous Peoples
Indigenous peoples have utilized the knowledge of medicinal plants throughout every stage of reproductive health care.
By Dr. Rosalyn R. LaPier
Associate Professor of Environmental Studies
The University of Montana
By Abacki Beck
Public Health Graduate
Washington University in St. Louis
After the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade in June, Minnesota’s Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Ojibwe Tribe, wrote on social media, “In Minnesota, your reproductive rights will stay protected. …Abortion is health care. Period.” She wasn’t just expressing the health care policy of Minnesota; she was also expressing the long-standing viewpoint of many Indigenous peoples. For thousands of years, reproductive health care has been an important part of Indigenous peoples’ cultural practices, which include religious rituals, sacred rites, and the right to abortion.
With the recent ruling by the Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a question emerges: To what extent will Indigenous religious and cultural practices related to reproductive health, including the right to an abortion, be impacted by this decision?
Indigenous Knowledge and Ceremony
Indigenous peoples have utilized the knowledge of medicinal plants throughout every stage of reproductive health care, from the start of menstruation, contraception, abortion, pregnancy, the birthing process, after birth, breast feeding, uterine health, and into menopause. Indigenous plant knowledge is passed down from generation to generation and is learned after years of formal training and by practicing proper cultural protocols. Our grandmother Annie Mad Plume Wall was a well-known and well-regarded Indigenous healer among the Blackfeet Nation of Montana. She learned plant knowledge from her grandmothers, including knowledge about reproductive health.
Our grandmother taught us that Blackfeet women used both medicinal plants and ritual practices for reproductive health. The Blackfeet used over a dozen plants to regulate menstruation, for abortion, for the birth process, and to address symptoms of menopause. Blackfeet women also held a religious ceremony during which a sanctified belt decorated with religious symbols was worn to regulate fertility and prevent pregnancy. Whether using medicinal plants or religious rituals, Blackfeet people viewed reproductive health and bodily autonomy as part of our relationship with the sacred realm.
While Christian conservatives viewed the recent decision as a “spiritual victory,” not all religions view abortion the same. A Jewish synagogue in Southern Florida recently announced it was suing the state for violation of religious freedom after it passed a law restricting abortion. Islamic religious scholars assert that “classical Islamic law sees legal personhood as beginning at birth.” Even Christian perspectives on abortion and contraceptive care have fluctuated over time and cultures, some religious studies scholars argue. In short: There is no single religious view of abortion.
The overturning of Roe v. Wade is part of a long legacy of American Christian values being forced on Indigenous communities. Indigenous peoples in the United States have only recently been able to assert their own religious ideas and practices. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act passed in 1978 after nearly 200 years of religious suppression by the United States government. This law guarantees that Indigenous people have a right to access religious sites, possess sacred objects, and have full freedom to worship and practice religious ceremonies. This includes reproductive health ceremonies.
Boarding schools run by Christian churches or the federal government also played a strong role in suppressing and criminalizing Native American cultures and religions. One impact that boarding schools had on Indigenous children and communities was loss of intergenerational cultural knowledge. The U.S. government is just beginning to address part of this history, as activists and members of Congress push for the passage of the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act.
Revitalization of Indigenous Knowledge
Though Indigenous communities deeply suffered from the intentional destruction of our cultures and religions, there has been a vibrant resurgence in traditional ecological knowledge in our communities, including reproductive health care practices.
Indigenous people are revitalizing coming-of-age ceremonies that mark when someone begins menstruation, including Ojibwe berry fasts, a year-long period in which young people abstain from eating berries and learn from their elders, and Hoopa Valley Tribal Flower Dance ceremonies, which Cutcha Risling Baldy, a professor of Native American studies at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, calls “a tangible, physical, spiritual and communal act of decolonization.” Indigenous doulas and cultural birthing practices are also on the rise, with collectives popping up throughout Canada and the U.S.
In the days since the Supreme Court decision, several states with large tribal and urban Indian communities, including North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oklahoma, have passed or introduced laws that ban or severely restrict abortion. Indigenous people on reservations seeking medical abortions or contraceptive care already face barriers; medical abortions and even Plan B pills are rarely available on reservation Indian Health Service facilities, where many Native people receive health care. The recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade will likely exacerbate these barriers to Western health care.
What remains to be seen is how the decision and resulting state laws that ban abortion will exacerbate barriers to utilizing traditional medicinal practices and Indigenous knowledge—and if this is a violation of Indigenous peoples’ centuries-old cultural and religious rights.
Originally published by Yes! Magazine, 06.30.2022, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.