Allard, Salazar Approve Abortion-Funding Ban at American Indian Clinics

Allegations of racism are being raised about an amendment to a new 10-year funding bill for the Indian Health Service that supersedes laws for other federally-supported clinics.The U.S. Senate voted 83-10 last week to provide $35 million in funding to improve programs and build new clinics for the nation’s 1.5 million American Indians and Alaska Natives (see SB 1200). With the bill however, came 80 amendments, including one to permanently prohibit the use of federal funds to pay for abortions at clinics that serve indigenous women.

As Washington Independent’s Mike Lillis writes:

Following scant debate, the Senate last week approved an amendment to an Indian health care bill that would permanently prohibit the use of federal dollars to fund abortions for Native Americans except in rare cases. The move has prompted an outcry from women’s health advocates-who point out that a similar ban has existed on a temporary basis for years-and from tribal groups, who are asking why Native American women should be subject to restrictions not applicable to other ethnic groups. Some charge that the Senate proposal is overtly racist.

The issue is a sensitive one in American Indian communities, where women are statistically more likely to be victims of rape or sexual assault than other American women-but also where victims very rarely use the exceptions to the current federally funded abortion ban in the wake of those crimes. In the face of that discrepancy, advocates say, Congress should encourage victims to take advantage of the available services, not impose tighter restrictions.

Since 1976, Congress has banned Medicaid, Medicare and other federal health funds from paying for abortions. Known as the Hyde Amendment, the ban requires an annual re-authorization by Congress.

A new amendment to revise Hyde was offered by Louisiana Sen. David Vitter to make the ban permanent only for women and girls receiving care though Indian Health Services, not other federally funded health programs.

A Republican lawmaker, Vitter was linked last year to the D.C. Madam scandal and has recently made several indelicate statements about Hurricane Katrina, immigrants, gays and public housing residents, fueling further controversy. This amendment, along with other legislation, is thought to be an attempt to recapture his conservative bona fides in the wake of those embarrassments.

The abortion funding ban though has given rise to charges of racism, as Lillis reports:

For that reason, tribal health advocates charge that the Vitter language treads on the sovereignty of Indian communities and places unique constraints on native women.

“It’s a very racist amendment,” said Charon Asetoyer, executive director of the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center, “[because] it puts another layer of restrictions on the only race of people whose health care is governed primarily by the federal government. All women are subject to the Hyde Amendment, so why would they put another set of conditions on us?”

Though the measure lifts the abortion-funding ban when a woman’s health is at risk, it further narrows the already restrictive Hyde Amendment by allowing for pregnancy terminations only in cases of incest involving a minor not for victims of any age.

Yet, the Vitter Amendment passed by a margin of 52-42.

Both Colorado Sens. Wayne Allard and Ken Salazar approved of the permanent funding ban with Salazar only one of eight democrats to vote for it.

Reached by The Washington Independent, Salazar spokeswoman Stephanie Valencia responded with a written statement:

Senator Salazar supports restricting federal funds for abortion purposes. However, Senator Salazar believes that there should be no distinction made between incest involving a minor and incest involving an adult and does not believe the Vitter amendment should have made that distinction.

His vote on the Vitter Amendment stands in stark contrast to his own impassioned Senate floor statement in support of the Indian Health Service bill.

This bill is vital to millions of Native Americans across the country, including the 52,000 Native Americans who live in my home state of Colorado.

For many Native Americans, access to health care is the biggest challenge. I have heard countless stories of individuals who are sick or in pain having to travel long distances to receive treatment. And when they get there, they find that the clinic cannot provide them all the treatments they need. Those services, they learn, are in hospitals hundreds of miles away.

Access problems affect not only Native Americans on reservations that span hundreds of miles, but Native Americans living in urban areas. For the 25,000 Native Americans living in Denver, there is only one health care facility to meet their health care needs: Denver Indian Health and Family Services.This facility is funded by the Indian Health Service with funding allocated through Title V of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which provides funding for urban health centers.

The United States government has a long-standing and solemn responsibility to federally recognized tribes that is demonstrated in treaties, statutes, U.S. Supreme Court cases and agreements. It is a trust responsibility that flows from Native Americans’ relinquishment of more than 500 million acres of land to the federal government.

Native Indians see the reauthorization of IHCIA as part of the U.S. government living up to its end of the bargain with tribal governments. And they are right. The disparities in health care between Native Americans and the general population is a real problem, and it is one that Congress has a responsibility to address.

Sen. Allard has not made a public statement.

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Wendy Norris

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