Inside the nation’s only abortion fund for Native Americans
At 13 weeks pregnant, Rae Lorenzo ended up in the emergency room with contractions, extreme pain and excessive bleeding. “I didn’t fully understand my rights as a patient or the protocols of hospitals – what they are legally obligated to do or how they can restrict care based on their personal beliefs,” says Lorenzo, a 32-year-old gay man. from New Mexico. reproductive rights activist (Mescalero Apache/Laguna Pueblo/Xicana) who uses the pronouns they/them.
As the pain became more and more unbearable, it became clear to them that an abortion was necessary. But the white ER doctor refused, telling Lorenzo, “I know what you need right now, but I can’t help you.” They were left alone to wait, bleeding through hospital sheets and suffering without proper pain management. It took 90 minutes for an obstetrician to intervene and provide the necessary abortion care. Lorenzo calls the experience, which happened in 2013, “dehumanizing”.
They left the hospital bitter, heartbroken and completely alone – and wondering if anyone else felt the same way after an abortion. “Growing up as an Indigenous person, you don’t hear about miscarriage, abortion, childbirth, breastfeeding or anything related to our reproductive health because of the stigma,” says Lorenzo. In an effort to create a safe space for Indigenous peoples to share their own experiences – on their terms – as an act of resistance and self-love, Lorenzo founded Indigenous Women Rising (IWR), a non-profit organization offering the only abortion fund dedicated to Native Americans. “I wanted us to be able to share these stories with each other using our own words,” says Lorenzo. “A lot of these feminist movements over the decades haven’t made room for Indigenous experiences.
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Unfortunately, Lorenzo’s abortion experience is not unique. Native Americans face both discrimination in conventional care settings and disproportionately poor health outcomes. Indigenous women are more than twice as likely die from pregnancy-related causes, and Aboriginal infants die at nearly double the rate of their white counterparts. More generally, Aboriginal women face highest rates of rape and sexual assault in the United States, are murdered at rates up to 10 times the national average, and usually die 12 years ago than white women. (Accurate national statistics on Native American abortion rates are still unavailable.) Experts attribute many of these disparities to systemic racism, limited access to health care, and widespread poverty that persists after centuries of oppression.
In Indigenous communities, the need for better reproductive health services long predates the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe vs. Wade this summer. “Roe vs. Wade has never been a reality for aboriginal people since many of us, whether we live on the reservation or in the city, rely on the Indian health service,” says Lorenzo, referring to the much-criticized government agency which provides health services to tribal communities. “And because of the Hyde Amendment, we are unable to access abortion care. Since 1976, legislation has prohibited the use of federal funds for abortion except in certain narrowly specific cases – acting as a de facto ban for those relying on IHS, Medicaid, or Medicare.
Lorenzo can pinpoint the exact moment when they realized they could fight injustice. It was in 2008, during their freshman year at the University of New Mexico. Then-candidate Barack Obama was giving a speech just 10 days before his historic presidential election. If he could do it, so could Lorenzo: “I remember crying and being so inspired that one day maybe a queer Indigenous kid could be president.” Lorenzo began volunteering with the New Mexico Democratic Party and was later selected as a member of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign under Deb Haaland, who is now US Secretary of the Interior. The following year, Lorenzo was the volunteer coordinator for Respect ABQ womena campaign to block a late-term abortion ballot initiative in Albuquerque. But soon enough, Lorenzo went from advocating for abortion rights to needing them. Eight weeks into their pregnancy, doctors told them the pregnancy was no longer viable and would end on its own.
“I was told that if I couldn’t stand up because of the pain, or if I soaked more than two towels per hour for two hours with blood, [only then did I need] go to the emergency room,” they explain. The message was very clear: the situation had to be dire for something to be done. “Now I know that I could have become septic and died of an internal infection if I had not received abortion care,” they say. “It’s so dehumanizing to look back.”
With a mission to ensure safe reproductive health care for Native communities, Lorenzo founded IWR in 2014. Early grassroots efforts focused on raising awareness of the barriers Native Americans face in get to plan B. Others wanted to join their mission, and the IWR staff grew into an all-BIPOC team of eight. In 2018, IWR was invited to participate in the “Make sure the breast pump does not suck“hackathon, a summit for equity-focused innovation in postpartum health care. Lorenzo has developed a reinvented version of the traditional two-layer belted Pueblo dress to facilitate breastfeeding, which propelled the IWR to national prominence.
“Non-natives didn’t care before, but now that something is impacting white women, they do.”
Suddenly, Lorenzo sent Instagram DMs asking for help. Inspired, they reached out National Network of Abortion Funds to help set up a fund dedicated to abortion for Native Americans. Today, IWR has a monthly budget of $20,000 to cover what Lorenzo calls “comprehensive care.” This means that in addition to covering abortion procedures, the nonprofit organization also contributes to travel, accommodation, food, childcare, and aftercare costs. Since the death of Texas SB 8 Six-Week Abortion Ban and the reversal of deerthey have seen an increase in claims for abortion funds and related costs, as the barriers that Indigenous people face in obtaining safe abortion care are exacerbated.
“What we’re finding is that the longer people have to wait to get an appointment or to travel, the more advanced they are, so the more expensive their procedure is going to be and the longer they’re going to have to stay in another city or another state because the procedure differs throughout a pregnancy,” says Lorenzo. A first-trimester abortion, for example, can cost between $400 and $700, while a second-trimester procedure can cost $3,000. $.
This year alone, IWR has already helped fund more than 450 applications for abortion funds. “It becomes difficult for us to follow,” said Lorenzo. “But our people are more valuable than gold. Nothing compares to the compassionate and loving care they provide to our clients across the country. They are supported by hundreds of volunteers across the country, who participate in initiatives such as sending care kits to recent clients and “abortion love letters” with messages such as “You don’t ‘re not alone” and “You made the right decision for yourself”. Seeing a need, the IWR recently opened its abortion fund to marginalized black and immigrant groups who, like tribal communities, have long faced the insidious effects of US imperialism.
In the days after deer was cancelled, desperate calls arose on social media for Indigenous communities open abortion clinics by reservationillustrating a lack of understanding of what tribal sovereignty really is, the activist Crystal Echo Hawk Explain in a recent essay for SHE. Lorenzo agrees: “It’s racist, ridiculous and ignorant as hell.” Tribal land is “not just a place where you can come and break the law,” says Lorenzo. “We still have to follow state laws and pay taxes. We also have tribal governments run by men who don’t want to talk with us about our rules. Do you really think they’re going to spend money arguing abortion in court, especially when we can barely protect our own land, water, and infrastructure? Non-natives didn’t care before, but now that something is impacting white women, they do.
Likewise, Lorenzo is disgusted with politicians using deer to lead voters to the polls in November for the midterm elections. “We already voted in 2020 and we voted Democrat,” they explain, “but the Democratic Party continues to hold these social issues hostage by not taking power when it can. There is so much shame towards the natives, blacks and latinos who don’t vote because of their material conditions. But having a safe place to live, education, food and clean water are all basic human rights – no one should have the impression that these things depend on whether he votes or not.
For Lorenzo, reproductive sovereignty is synonymous with land sovereignty. “It’s not just about abortion; it is about our right as Indigenous people to manage our land as the Creator told us to,” they say, referring to the master spirit that many Indigenous communities believe created the universe . “In our vision of reproductive justice, it all comes down to who manages the land in the best way for Indigenous children, so they can make decisions about their own bodies.
Lorenzo dreams of a future where the IWR is no longer needed. “I never thought we would grow to be as great as we are,” they say in a moment of silent contemplation. “I was just depressed over a pregnancy and abortion that went wrong.” This is an optimistic notion but not entirely impossible, given the recent increase in back-to-the-land agreements and the rise of Native American representation in both Politics and pop culture. But for now, the IWR remains a desperate necessity. “As Indigenous people, we need to be aware that childhood is sacred and that our healing is so important,” says Lorenzo. “What we don’t address now adds to the burden on our children. It’s a big part of why I do what I do.
A member of the Tlingit tribe of Alaska, Kate Nelson is an award-winning writer and editor living in Minneapolis.