Health | National

Native Sun News: IHS bars access to emergency contraceptives





The following story was written and reported by Evelyn Red Lodge, Native Sun News Correspondent. All content © Native Sun News.


Sunny Clifford at a solidarity march for women’s rights earlier this year in Rapid City. Photo by Evelyn Red Lodge

RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA –– According to a report from earlier this year, “Native American women experience sexual assault at a higher rate than all other U.S. populations,” and “more than 1 in 3 Native American women will be raped in their lifetime.”

The report is entitled “Roundtable Report on the Accessibility of Plan B as an Over The Counter (OTC) Within Indian Health Service,” and was released in February by the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center, which is headquartered in Lake Andes.

Aware of the high rate of rape, Lakota Sunny Clifford, 26, of Kyle started a petition on www.change.org that currently has nearly 103,000 signatures in support of access to emergency contraceptives at Indian Health Service facilities. Her goal is 150,000 signatures.

In the report, Charon Asetoyer, executive director of the resource center, said, “I’ve heard women ask for information about emergency contraceptives so they can talk to their daughters about what to do when they are sexually assaulted, not if they are sexually assaulted, but when.”

Access to Plan B One Step or other brands of emergency contraceptives at various IHS facilities differs from the accessibility afforded other United States populations. As for other populations, “Emergency contraceptive pills are stocked by all major pharmacy chains. There are currently four different brands of emergency contraceptive pills (sometimes called the ‘morning after pill’) that may be available in U.S. pharmacies. In the United States, emergency contraceptive pills are available without prescription for women 17 and older,” according to www.ec.princeton.edu/providers.

Clifford checked with her local IHS on the Pine Ridge Reservation about the availability of emergency contraception such as Plan B and how to obtain it.

She said, “I checked with Kyle IHS, and I told them I needed Plan B. They told me I had to get a prescription from the midwife, and she wasn’t there. The receptionist told me I would have to go to either Wanblee or Pine Ridge to get it.”

She noted the two locations are each roughly an hour’s drive away and that many people living on Indian reservations do not own cars, do not have gas money or do not have a ride.

Clifford also said no one was willing to deliver the contraception to her.

She wondered what would happen if she had actually been raped.

By telephone, Asetoyer said, “When you have statistics for sexual assault as high as in war-torn countries, the health care providers should be doing everything they can to reduce the trauma associated with the sexual assault.”

She continued, “(Emergency contraceptives) will reduce the potential for abortion. Anything to reduce the trauma needs to be accessible. East coast university students can access (contraceptives) from a kiosk or vending machine for $25. Why should we be the only race of women in the United States that do not have access through a health care provider? Now we have the support of National Congress of American Indians, who passed a resolution (which mirrors the access other populations have).”

Asetoyer said, “What about the women who choose not to report the assault? She doesn’t have any support. And sometimes the only pharmacies on an Indian reservation are at the IHS hospitals.”

Clifford also felt it important to say that the Plan B and other emergency contraceptives are just what they say they are as contraceptives.

“Plan B is not an abortion pill,” she noted.

According to the Princeton University website, emergency contraceptives are not abortion pills; they prevent pregnancy after having unprotected sex.

Clifford’s petition is directed to the national director of Indian Health Service, Yvette Roubideaux, staff at IHS and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.

Native Sun News requested an official statement from Roubideaux via email, but was instead referred to K. Dianne Dawson, public affairs specialist for IHS.

Dawson sent this response to queries on the availability of emergency contraceptives in Indian country:

“The official IHS statement is ‘IHS is in the process of standardizing our procedures to ensure patients have access to the medicines they need.’”

Clifford’s petition asks for all people to “Please sign this petition to ask Dr. Roubideaux to issue this directive and to alert the Department of Health and Human Services, which has oversight over her and IHS, to the situation. Native women deserve and demand equal access to basic reproductive health care.”

According to www.ihs.gov, “Some have refused to prescribe or to dispense the prescription after it has been prescribed by a provider. While it is the right of providers and health care workers to work within their conscience, those health care personnel are also obliged to refer the patient to a provider or facility that is able to meet their needs at minimum of inconvenience.” Also, “Treatment with emergency contraception should be initiated as soon as possible after unprotected or inadequately protected intercourse to maximize efficacy.”

As many broken links in the ihs.gov website currently exist, NSN was unable to determine whether women age 17 and older were offered emergency contraception without a prescription, as is the rest of the population.

The report additionally states, “Our office called the Sioux San Indian Health Service emergency room in Rapid City, South Dakota, to ask if they would provide Plan B for a rape victim. The response was “No, we do not. If you want it, go buy it.”

It is a response that could be seen as cold, lacking compassion, judgmental and offensive.

Historically, the Catholic Church has been opposed to birth control and abortion. And Asetoyer offers an insight into possible interference by the church: “In South Dakota, the Benedictine nuns are shrewd businesswomen. They own just about every clinic and health care facility. Even in Lake Andes, which is like a dot on the map, (in) the whole southeast quarter of South Dakota they’ve bought almost every hospital and every clinic so that they can have control of family planning services. IHS contracts with some of these facilities because they don’t have a choice. They shouldn’t be allowed to accept federal dollars if they don’t provide services.”

At the time of her interview, Clifford said she would graduate from Oglala Lakota College on June 24 with a bachelor’s degree in literature and communications. She is currently a park ranger and may consider a law enforcement career in the future. To access Clifford’s petition, visit www.change.org/ihs.

The report can be accessed at Clifford’s petition site or www.nativeshop.org.

(Contact Evelyn Red Lodge at welakota@yahoo.com)