Indian Tribe May Open Abortion Clinic on Its Land

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The president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe has vowed to build an abortion clinic on Indian land — despite South Dakota's statewide ban on abortion. The clinic, which would be outside the jurisdiction of the state, could possibly remain open even if the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling were someday overturned by the Supreme Court. But some residents of the reservation oppose the plan, which has sparked a national fundraising effort in support of the clinic.


To South Dakota now, where an Indian tribe is wading into that state's battle over abortion. The South Dakota legislature has passed, and the governor has signed, a ban on nearly all abortions. That's a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade. Now the president of the Pine Ridge Reservation is vowing to build an abortion clinic on Indian land, outside the jurisdiction of the state. South Dakota public radio's Charles Michael Ray reports.

CHARLES RAY: If you want to find out what's happening on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Big Bats Convenience Store is the place to go. This store in the town of Pine Ridge is where tribal residents go to gather and chew the fat. One local resident, Pigeon Big Crow, says abortion has been the hot topic here for the last few weeks.

PIGEON BIG CROW: The debate is rampant everywhere you go. You can go to the store, you can pump some gas and people are talking about the issue.

RAY: Big Crow says she supports the clinic proposal for this reservation. If built, it would be the only location to provide abortion services for at least 350 miles in any direction. Currently, only one facility in South Dakota provides abortions and state lawmakers would like to see it closed. The state has passed the nation's toughest anti-abortion law to date, banning the procedure even in cases of rape and incest. It's this move that spurred Oglala Sioux Tribal President Cecilia Fire Thunder into action.

CECILIA FIRE THUNDER: To me if a woman who's been sexually assaulted finds herself pregnant and she makes the decision to terminate that pregnancy caused by violence, that's her choice, you know. I don't know what the state legislatures were thinking.

RAY: Fire Thunder lives up to her name. She's a formidable woman who's just shy of her 60th birthday. She's quick to smile, but she's not afraid to speak her mind to anyone. Fire Thunder says the private abortion facility would provide total reproductive healthcare to women and men of all races. She says the facility could operate legally, despite state restrictions.

FIRE THUNDER: What the state of South Dakota did was they broke federal law. So, as a person who has some power and status, it was incumbent upon me to stand up and take a position for women.

RAY: After Cecilia Fire Thunder announced her intentions to build a clinic, donations began to pour in from across the country. She's raised about $10,000 so far. But some Pine Ridge residents say Fire Thunder's biggest obstacle won't be financial. She's already survived two impeachment attempts and could now face yet another from angry tribal residents who oppose her plan. Another hurdle may be tribal law itself.

PATRICK LEE: Okay, chapter 5 section 1.05...

RAY: Patrick Lee, a former chief judge for the Oglala Sioux tribe, says this section of tribal juvenile code effectively bans abortion. Lee says the law has been sitting quietly on the books for many years and is actually more strict than the abortion ban recently passed by the state.

LEE: The tribal cultural value of respect for life is embodied in section 102 of the juvenile code, which deems an unborn child as an existing person.

RAY: Lee says while on the bench he used the law to levy child abuse charges against women on the reservation who used alcohol while pregnant. He says at a minimum, the tribal council will have to change the current law before an abortion clinic could be built on Pine Ridge. While the debate continues on this Reservation, it also rages across the state. South Dakota's abortion ban will go into effect on July 1st unless abortion right's activists can muster enough signatures to put the issue on the November ballot. Such a move would delay implantation.

Unidentified Man: Yeah, give me the pen.

Unidentified Woman: Ok. It's right there. Sign your name on top, right underneath it print your name.

RAY: Petitioner's have been braving some very cold spring weather to gather signatures across the state. They say they have about one-third of those they need. Polls show that a small majority of South Dakotans oppose the abortion ban. But if this issue makes it to the ballot in November and fails, it will likely end up before the Supreme Court. Regardless of these challenges, Oglala Sioux Tribal President Cecilia Fire Thunder says she will continue with her plans for a facility that provides abortions on the Pine Ridge Reservation. For NPR News I'm Charles Michael Ray in Rapid City, South Dakota.

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