As the presidential election approached, we heard plenty of political rhetoric about reproductive rights. From abortion laws to ‘legitimate rape,’ everyone seemed to have an opinion about women’s bodies.
It’s time we refocus the conversation and stand back to examine the effect these decisions are having on real women—not merely characters featured in a politician’s talking points.
As a recent female college graduate entering into the professional world, I often hear the debate regarding whether women can have it all: career, kids, and a healthy marriage. It’s an important question, but there’s an inherent privilege that’s implied by asking it. What about this question—forget “having it all” for a moment—can women even have Plan B?
To answer the question, I spoke with Charon Asetoyer, a health activist working with young women on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakota. She is leading the battle for reproductive justice in the Native American community and ultimately for women everywhere.
“Native women cannot get Plan B through their primary healthcare provider, Indian Health Service (IHS). We’re looking at more than 1 in 3 Native women being raped in her lifetime and Indian Health Service is doing absolutely nothing to address these residual affects of rape. That is a human rights violation being committed against Native women everyday in this country,” says Asetoyer.
Very few IHS pharmacies administer over-the-counter Plan B (the morning after pill) and many do not carry it at all. Asetoyer says that what 26 year-old Lakota Sunny Clifford experienced is all too common.
“I wasn’t even aware I could get Plan B from IHS,” Clifford (pictured above), who lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation, tells me. This past July, Clifford called her local clinic to request the emergency contraceptive. In the United States, every woman 17 and older is legally entitled to access Plan B over the counter. However, Clifford’s clinic in Kyle, South Dakota told her that she would have to get a prescription from the midwife who was not in the office. Her other options were to drive to Wanbli Health Center or Pine Ridge, both of which are about 50 miles away.
“I sat there and cried a little bit. It was really frustrating for me. I was sitting there and I didn’t have a dollar to my name. I didn’t have a car. I felt powerless,” says Clifford.
Remember the beginning of this article, when I told you I wanted to talk about the impact reproductive rights policies are having on real women? Well, here’s an example: Asetoyer explains that often mothers will walk into her office, wanting to know when Plan B will be widely accessible. “They want more information about Plan B so they can talk to their daughters so that when they are sexually assaulted, they’ll know about it and be able to request it.”
It’s frightening to consider how something so horrific becomes the norm. There is no question; rather, it’s an expectation for these women that one day their daughter may be sexually assaulted. Asetoyer adds, “That’s shocking when a mother says when my daughter is sexually assaulted. And that is absolutely unacceptable in every other community and the government is doing little of anything to help address this.”
It is an outrage that not only may it be difficult to physically access Plan B but also lack of information regarding emergency contraceptives can serve as an obstacle for young women who have been sexually assaulted.
Most women living in non-rural areas can simply walk into their local pharmacy and request Plan B. So what does all this have to do with the vast majority of women in America? As Asetoyer explains, “These issues are not only affecting Native women but anytime a woman is denied a right, it affects all women. Because if they can get by with it with a small segment of the population in the country then they’re gonna be able to get by with it with another group.”
We need to be careful when we discuss this question of “having it all.” What does it mean? Who are we talking about it? Many of us can walk into a pharmacy and request Plan B without the worry of whether the person at the counter will tell us to travel hours away. For some women, justice does not simply begin at economic opportunities equal to men but also encompasses a human right to control our reproductive systems that more privileged women, myself included, take for granted everyday. The truth is that no woman can count on “having it all” as long as some women continue to be denied even their basic rights.
For more information, please visit see the Roundtable Report on the Access of Plan B as an Over the Counter (OTIC) Within Indian Health Service
Reader submission by Chloe Haimson
Chloe Haimson, a recent graduate of Princeton University, lives in New York City. This piece is the first in a series she is working on funded by Native American Public Telecommunications. The series, Sovereign Bodies, focuses on Native women reproductive health issues and is being produced in conjunction with the documentary film Young Lakota, airing on PBS Independent Lens in November 2013 as part of the Women and Girls Lead initiative.