If she hadn’t received an abortion at age 19, Sarah Deer said she would not have become the person she is today. She has reached great heights of success and advocated for marginalized people.
“[Giving birth] can change one’s life and I have no regrets about having an abortion,” she said. “It’s the best decision that I made at that time, and I’m tired of the stigma. Stigma is what keeps people from talking about it.”
Deer, who is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, has assumed many roles in her life as a legal scholar and advocate, author, college professor and public speaker.
While growing up in Wichita, Deer was involved in abortion rights activism, especially during the summer of 1991, when Operation Rescue forced the abortion clinic there to temporarily shut down.
In what was referred to as the “Summer of Mercy,” anti-abortion activists protested the legalization and practice of abortions. For six weeks, hundreds of people with Operation Rescue purposed themselves with stopping people from receiving abortions by staging sit-ins at the Wichita clinic.
Come 1994, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act prohibited blocking entry to abortion clinics. Because of this and other internal factors, Operation Rescue was unable to have long-term success, but anti-abortion protesters remain able to protest outside of clinics today.
During the summer of 1992, Deer found herself in need of abortion health care. She said she “knew something was wrong” when she began getting sick in the mornings, and then she quickly learned she had become pregnant because of failed birth control.
She understood she was not ready to have a child, so at six weeks into her pregnancy, she had an abortion in Wichita.
Deer said she felt confident in her decision then and remains firm in it now, and that choosing to not have a child was important in her life journey as she was able to center her personal goals as well as her passion for advocacy work.
“I’ve been fortunate to accomplish a lot in my life and to have achieved great things, and none of that would have been possible if I gave forced birth at age 19,” Deer said.
Deer attended the University of Kansas for her undergraduate degree, and she received her juris doctorate from KU’s School of Law in 1999. She then went to work with the Department of Justice. She’s testified before Congress on four occasions in cases relating to violence against Native women, and her devotion to criminal justice reform on Indian reservations earned her national awards from the DOJ and the American Bar Association.
At KU, Deer is a distinguished professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at School of Public Affairs and Administration and has a courtesy appointment at the School of Law. She’s been teaching at KU for the past five years, and she has served as chief justice for the Prairie Island Indian Community Court of Appeals for more than nine years.
Deer has authored several works as a scholar on a variety of issues, including Indigenous studies, tribal sovereignty, gender and sexuality studies, and sexual violence.
Her book, “The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America,” features her findings from 25 years of working with survivors and criminal justice professionals. Among other recognitions, the 2015 book received the Best First Book award from the Native American Indigenous Studies Association. She has co-authored four textbooks on tribal law and had various articles published in law journals.
Deer also co-authored and filed several amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court, including one to voice concerns about the detriments of abortion bans on Indigenous communities in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — the recent case that led to the Roe v. Wade decision being overturned.
A new glimmer of hope in Kansas
Kansans on Tuesday soundly defeated a proposed constitutional amendment that would have opened the door for politicians to ban abortion in the state if it had passed. The amendment fell 59% to 41%. That gave Deer a glimmer of hope, she said.
“The afterglow feels pretty tremendous. Obviously this is just one victory, but I think it’s gonna inspire people across the nation to stand up and speak out and make sure that people have the health care that they need,” Deer said.
Though abortion justice work doesn’t stop now, Deer said, she praised young organizers and mobilizers who participated in groundwork, such as voter outreach, canvassing neighborhoods, and educating on reproductive health, in efforts to increase the number of voters voting “no” to the amendment.
“Everyone, but particularly the younger generation, especially college students, really didn’t even need to know what Roe v. Wade was because they were born in 1998 or after and so to see their energy around this has been very … they just did it, the young people did it. I’m just so grateful,” Deer said.
Deer said she hopes the work of grassroots movements for abortion justice in Kansas, such as Vote No Kansas, Vote Neigh, Loud Light, URGE Kansas and more, will inspire other states to follow suit.
“I’m really grateful for the boots-on-the-ground people most of all, who I think made this happen,” Deer said. “It wouldn’t have happened without the volunteers working on this issue. Making a donation is helpful, but it doesn’t change things on the ground.”
She said she’s hopeful that this movement will be motivated to do more, and that it will inspire other states to do the same thing — or to try to address anti-abortion legislation through their own constitutional amendments.
“I think that would be one of the areas that I would want to work on — to help other states achieve what we’ve achieved.”
Now that abortion remains a constitutional right in Kansas, Deer said Kansans as well as people in neighboring states will heavily rely on resources and access in the state, and that financial support is key because costs will add up. On top of procedure costs, people seeking abortions may face extensive traveling costs.
There’s also the issue of scarce abortion health care, said Deer, as only four clinics in Kansas provide abortions.
“It’s going to be expensive, and I think that’s one of the things that we really need to focus on is the travel, so I’m donating to abortion funds again because I have the ability to be able to do that,” Deer said. “For those people in abortion-ban states, they’re gonna need more travel money, more hotel money … If you don’t have access to an abortion clinic, it might as well just be an anti-abortion state, right?”
Deer has particularly urged those who are able to donate to Indigenous Women Rising, an abortion fund that supports Indigenous people seeking abortions in the United States and Canada, and the Kansas Abortion Fund, which is focused on Kansans.
In this post-Roe era, Deer said she constantly thinks of the impact on her undergraduate students, who are primarily between ages 18 and 22. Because she was able to make a confident decision to have an abortion when she was 19 years old, Deer said she longs for her students to also be secure in their autonomy in 2022 and after.
“All I kept thinking about is the 19-year-olds in my classrooms and if something happens, they end up pregnant and they don’t have any options, that would break my heart. And I’m so glad they’ll have access the way I had access 30 years ago,” Deer said.
“I just want them to have the same rights that I had.”
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The “Value Them Both” amendment would pave the way to a complete ban of abortion in Kansas despite language implying otherwise, panelists said Saturday. If the majority votes “yes” in August, legislators could ban abortions even in cases of rape, incest, and risk of death.