Empty hospital bed.

Native Reproductive Justice: Practices and Policies from Relinquishment to Family Preservation

By Lauren van Schilfgaarde

Adoption can be, and frequently is, a celebrated extension of kinship ties within Native communities. But we cannot ignore the historical context of adoption as a tool to empty tribal communities and delete tribal cultures. Nor can we ignore the historical context of the simultaneous deprivation and weaponization of reproductive health care, both of which deny Native women reproductive self-determination. 

It is these contexts in which anti-abortion proponents seek to ameliorate the further denial of health care through increased adoption. The proposal is eerily familiar. 

Natives know well the argument for “parental relinquishment” as a promotion of the social good. Native child-rearing has long been targeted as a barrier for tribes to access American prosperity. Native culture was deemed the problem, but Native children, if properly educated and freed from the inferior trappings of tribal life, were deemed salvageable. Between 1875 and 1928, Native children were forcibly removed from their parents, families, and communities to off-reservation boarding schools. These policies later morphed into the Indian Adoption Project, in which thousands of Native children were forcibly removed between 1958 and 1967, and placed in non-Indian adoptive families. Native children were specifically identified and targeted for adoption, cultivating an adoption market specifically for them.

Native reproduction was similarly targeted under the auspices of paternalistic “social good.” The late nineteenth century criminalization of traditional healers and invasive scrutiny of Indigenous concepts of gender, non-nuclear family structures, and kinship, sought to undermine traditional reproductive health and family practices. To address the perceived inadequacy of Native mothers, the federal government implemented the field matron program in 1890 to impart lessons to Native mothers on civilized domesticity and Victorian gender norms. Rather than address systemic issues of economic, environmental, nutritional, or cultural loss contributing to worrisome reproductive health, much less foster Native-determined initiatives, the federal response was to blame individual women for their perceived deficiencies. 

Native reproductive health needs have been increasingly diverted from in-home providers to under-resourced institutions and hospitals. The medicalization of reproductive health care reinforced a federal sense that Native reproduction needs to be “controlled.” This was most disturbingly realized in the institutionalized sterilization of Native people in the 1970s, many without meaningful consent. Indian Health Service (IHS) physicians started prescribing Depo-Provera birth control injections before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved it for use as birth control. Federal employees, including many physicians, retained the belief that Native parents were inherently deficient and dysfunctional. Native reproduction needed to be “controlled,” for their own good. 

Today, the maternal mortality rate for Native women is 1.2 times the rate for non-Hispanic white women. Native women also suffer the highest rate of violent victimization. The high rate of sexual assault among Native American women gives rise to a unique set of health care needs for victims — physical injuries, psychological trauma, exposure to sexually transmitted infections, and unwanted pregnancy. Sexual assault adversely impacts the reproductive health of women, and its effects must be addressed in developing a health care strategy that will address the special health care needs of Native American women. Yet Native people have the least access to emergency contraception and abortion services due in part to complicated laws involving jurisdiction, and the remote nature of many Indian reservations.

Worse, all Native women have effectively been living under a total abortion ban for the last forty-five years. In 1976, Congress passed a rider put forth by Representative Henry Hyde to the Department of Health and Human Services appropriations bill that prohibited the use of federal funds for abortions, except in very limited circumstances. The Hyde Amendment has a profound impact on the ability of IHS — which relies exclusively on federal funds for its operating budget — to offer comprehensive reproductive health care services. The Hyde Amendment hinders the ability of all low-income women to terminate a pregnancy and disproportionately affects women of color, but it discriminates against Native women specifically because they are entitled to receive health services from a federal agency. 

Native women and families have long suffered under the federal proclivity to control. Native parenting has historically been scrutinized and continues to be conflated with neglect. Native children have been historically targeted for removal and continue to be disproportionately placed outside of the home, the family, and the community. Native reproductive health has been weaponized for the purposes of control, robbing Native women of their self-determination. The prospect of “parental relinquishment,” or adoption, as a solution to avoid the provision abortion health care, is therefore a rotten and ironic proposal in the face of policies towards Native families. 

Lauren van Schilfgaarde (Cochiti Pueblo) is the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians Tribal Legal Development Clinic Director at UCLA School of Law. van Schilfgaarde previously served as the Tribal Law Specialist at the Tribal Law and Policy. van Schilfgaarde, in partnership with a coalition of Native reproductive advocates, helped to co-author the Fire Thunder Native amicus brief in Dobbs, et al., v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, et al.

The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center staff often posts updates, announcements, and guests posts on behalf of others.

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