An exhibit at the Ganondagan State Historic Site, a historic Seneca village, explains the role of women in Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee, society. Photo: Michael Venditozzi

Doug George-Kanentiio: Abortion in Native societies is a complex issue

Abortion and the Iroquois

Abortion in Native societies is a complex issue involving family, clan and community. There are very specific moral teachings which discourage this act which may involve the mother, her maternal kin and the female leadership of her extended family, the clan. Together, they would discuss the reasons for, and against, carrying an embryo to term but the final decision was left to the woman since it was her body and hers alone.

Equally important was the practice of birth control by both men and women. The Iroquois were well aware of the biological dimensions of conception. They had a number of effective contraceptive methods including the use of certain plants which reduced the number of the male sperm and prevented the fertilization of the female egg.

Iroquois couples also were sensitive to the menstrual cycles of the female partner and knew which days they should refrain from intercourse in order to reduce the chances of the woman becoming pregnant.

Should the woman actually conceive and elect not to give birth she had direct access to plants which terminated the pregnancy almost immediately after ingestion and without any painful side effects. Ending a pregnancy did not involve the machinery of government nor did it have legal repercussions. No man was allowed to have any control over that decision.

Iroquois traditionalists believe the rights of children must be taken into consideration in the deliberations of adult humans. Every child born into the world has an absolute right, under Iroquois law, to adequate food, clothing and shelter. Further, each child is a blessing from the Creator to be treated with respect, dignity and love.

All the efforts of the Iroquois state were directed at securing the survival of the children. Equally as important, and a social imperative, was the happiness of the young.

Ideally, for a child to be truly happy on this earth they must be secure in their identity meaning the child’s immediate and extended family were to assist the infant as they grew into character. Nothing must stand in the way of a child realizing it’s natural talents. Every newborn, it is believed, has some type of innate ability which would contribute to the stability and happiness of the community.

Adults, and especially mothers, were instructed to watch the infants carefully and see which skills they were given, then to make sure the child had the tools to reach its full potential. Children were never assaulted since they would then come to believe violence was an acceptable way of resolving disputes.

Should the social or economic circumstances qualify a child’s happiness, or if it were likely the baby would be born amidst suffering, then the mother might elect to prevent its entry into a hostile world. Such actions were taken by the Native people in the Caribbean when confronted with the murderous actions of the Spanish invaders. Better, they reasoned, to have the embryo remain unborn then face rape, mutilation and slavery.

We Iroquois believe this is but one of an infinite number of realities, the essence of which is to experience the pleasure of being. Iroquois women believed the aborted embryo would have its spirit returned to the Creator where it might be reborn in other circumstances.

The Iroquois would then view abortion as a mother’s wish to save a child from prolonged pain and suffering. The current movement in the US to outlaw abortion is perceived by the Iroquois as an attempt by men to control the birthing process and to return women to their former condition of servitude. In our nations, where women enjoyed the highest degree of liberty of any human society, this overt act of suppression would be impossible.

Perhaps instead of acting against the specific act of abortion, its opponents might consider improving the overall social conditions which, in its current oppressive state, now dissuades many potential mothers from having children.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. He has served as a Trustee for the National Museum of the American Indian, is a former land claims negotiator for the Mohawk Nation and is the author of numerous books and articles about the Mohawk people. He may be reached via e-mail at: or by calling 315-415-7288.

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