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Tribe may circumvent S.D. abortion ban

In South Dakota, where lawmakers last month passed a near-total ban on abortion, the leader of one of the state’s American Indian tribes is proposing to circumvent the legislation by establishing an abortion clinic on an Indian reservation – within reach of women who need the service, but outside the reach of the strict new law.

Cecelia Fire Thunder, a former nurse who is the first female president in the history of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said it was “an eye-opener” when legislators approved a law that prohibits abortion in nearly all cases – even when the pregnancy is the product of a rape or incest. The only exception is to save the mother’s life.

“An Indian reservation is a sovereign nation and we’re going to take it as far as we can to exercise our sovereignty,” said Fire Thunder, whose Pine Ridge Reservation encompasses 2.7 million acres in southwestern South Dakota. “As Indian women, we fight many battles. This is just another battle we have to fight.”

Because federally recognized American Indian tribes are not, in many cases, required to abide by state law, a clinic could operate lawfully at Pine Ridge even with a ban in place, said South Dakota Attorney General Larry Long. Tribes are, in many respects, treated as foreign nations.

Fire Thunder is one of 15 co-chairs of the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, which recently formed with the goal of putting the abortion ban to voters. The 59-year-old tribal leader, who said she has counseled rape victims, said it was the legislators’ insistence on prohibiting abortions for women who have become pregnant as the result of a rape that drew her to speak out on the issue and propose building “a Planned Parenthood-type clinic” on tribal land.

She first floated the idea to an American Indian columnist in South Dakota last week. Since then it has been fodder for the local press and national blogs. Her e-mail inbox has filled up with people supporting the idea, she said.

“People need to open up their eyes in this country. Women are being raped at a tremendously high rate in this nation,” she told a Baltimore Sun reporter this week. “In a perfect world, you will report the rape, the police will respond, they will take you to the emergency room. You will tell your story, you will get emergency contraception.

“We don’t live in a perfect world. In rural America, that does not happen.”

For now, it remains legal to get an abortion in South Dakota. About 800 a year are performed at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Sioux Falls where doctors fly in once or twice a week from Minnesota, according to Marta Coursey, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota. It is the only abortion clinic in the state.

The state ban takes effect July 1. Meanwhile, it faces hurdles.

The South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families last weekend began collecting the 16,728 signatures needed to place a referendum on the law on the November ballot – and gathered nearly 1,100 in a matter of days, said Nathan Peterson, the campaign’s petition director. If the group gets the required signatures, the law would be on hold until the fall.


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