For consistency's sake, the Health and Human Services Department has just issued a rule instructing the Indian Health Service, as of Feb. 26, to perform abortions only if a doctor certifies in writing that a full-term pregnancy threatens the woman's life. No law required this: Congressional restrictions on abortion funding only affect HHS's money. Indian Health Service funds come from the Interior Department and HHS administers them.
This discretionary rule is a touchy issue for Indians angered by what they see as government interference with their reproductive lives. Six years ago, the issue was sterilizations performed on Indian women who, it was charged, had not given their consent. "It's a family issue if a woman has a hysterectomy and it's a family issue if a woman is raped and needs an abortion," said Suzan Harjo of the Native American Rights Fund. "Planned families have been an Indian tradition for many centuries before there was a United States; we don't need the United States interfering with our future history." She said the rule also violates principles of tribal sovereignty.
However, HHS says in the final rule published last week that tribes often contract for the services of an IHS hospital or clinic; part of the contract involves accepting HHS rules. If tribes want to pay for private abortions elsewhere they may. IHS performed more than 1,000 abortions on Indian women in 1979; 700,000 Indians receive care from IHS.