Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin vetoed Senate Bill 1552 in May, not before the bill raised the question about tribal jurisdiction.

Oklahoma Abortion Bill Veto Opens Tribal Jurisdiction Question

Brian Daffron

The state of Oklahoma came close last month to Senate Bill 1552, which would have made it a felony for a physician to perform an abortion, becoming a law. Gov. Mary Fallin (R-Okla.) vetoed the bill on May 20, and the 2016 legislative session closed before an override could happen. If a variation of SB 1552 passes in next year’s Oklahoma session, how would this affect Oklahoma’s tribal citizens and Oklahoma tribes as a whole?

Statistically, Native American women who receive abortion services is low. According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s 2002-2014 study Abortion Surveillance in Oklahoma, Native women receiving abortions is 5.9 percent, or 56.7 abortions per 1000 live births. Yet, within the number of Oklahoma women as a whole who receive abortions, Native American women under age 20 have the highest percentages at 21.3 percent.

These numbers are low overall, and there has been no public movement in Oklahoma for an abortion clinic to open on tribal trust land. Yet, in other parts of Indian country, this has not been the case. More than 10 years ago, the former Oglala Sioux tribal chair, Cecilia Fire Thunder, supported an initiative to open a women’s health services clinic on the Pine Ridge Reservation. While this could theoretically take place in Oklahoma on tribal lands, there is no movement to do so at press time. When ICTMN asked Gov. Fallin's office about the possibility of the issue, Fallin’s office declined to comment.

Outside of Oklahoma, there are tribes who list abortion as part of their criminal code of laws within their reservation borders. One of these is the Oneida Nation of New York, which has at least five abortion criminal statutes, with "abortion in the first degree"--an abortion carried out after 24 weeks of pregnancy--being a felony. Other abortion-related statutes are misdemeanors, such as self-induced abortions or the issuing of abortion-related articles.

The Yankton Sioux Tribe has abortion criminal statutes that are written more toward the prevention of domestic violence and the consumption of alcohol and drugs while pregnant. The first of these is considered a crime to “strike the stomach of any female carrying an unborn child,” while the second law is against reckless endangerment “by ingesting alchohol, drugs, inhalants or other intoxicating substances.” The statutes “shall not apply to legally-obtained abortions by the pregnant mother.”

The Unitah-Ouray Ute criminal code is highly detailed with abortion laws, considering them unlawful with the detailed exception of rape, incest or mother’s health concerns. Furthermore, written documents—with tests and other supporting evidence--from two physicians are required, with rape and incest cases requiring the submission of paperwork to the police. Further abortion-related actions, including self-abortions, are also written into the criminal code.

Oklahoma’s deadline for requesting the drafting of house bills and joint resolutions for the 2017 session is December 9, 2016. Oklahoma’s residents—including tribal citizens—will then get to see if a new version of this bill is written and if Oklahoma tribes will need to respond.

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