South Dakota shows just how fragile access to abortion is during the pandemic

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COVID-19 — and Republican lawmakers — have made access to care even more precarious.

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, 12 states used the crisis to ban or severely limit access to abortion. South Dakota wasn't one of those states, but its abortion access was already so fragile the pandemic created an effective ban. Now, new data shows that hundreds of people were affected and sought abortions in other states during 2020. 

Only one clinic performs abortions in South Dakota, a Planned Parenthood health center in Sioux Falls. However, there are no doctors in the state who perform abortions. The clinic can only provide the procedure because doctors have flown in and out of the state for 25 years. Most recently, four Minnesota doctors traveled there twice per month to provide abortion service. 

At the start of the pandemic, and stretching through the summer and fall of 2020 as cases continued to increase, Planned Parenthood stopped having doctors travel to the clinic, concerned about both doctor and patient safety. Abortions didn't resume in the state until October, when the clinic began offering those services only one day per month.

Just-released data makes clear that just because abortions weren't available in South Dakota, that didn't stop people from needing, or obtaining, abortions. Rather, people in need were forced to travel to other states to obtain basic reproductive health care. 

South Dakota did indeed see a sharp drop in abortions during the onset of the pandemic, decreasing from 400 in 2019 to just 125 the following year. In 2020, though, over 450 South Dakota residents traveled to other states to get an abortion. 

Both Nebraska and Minnesota reported huge spikes in patients from South Dakota. In 2019, 99 South Dakota residents went to nearby Minnesota for an abortion, which ballooned to 152 in 2020. In Nebraska, only 33 South Dakotans went there for an abortion in 2019, but that number nearly quadrupled to 132 in 2020. North Dakota abortion clinics saw an additional 10 South Dakota patients in 2020 versus the previous year.

Iowa doesn't break down data for out-of-state abortions at the state level. However, Iowa abortion providers saw almost 200 additional out-of-state patients during 2020. Sioux Falls-area abortion advocates believe that many of those cases were from eastern South Dakota. Finally, over 120 South Dakota residents went to Colorado for the procedure in 2020. 

What happened in South Dakota doesn't just highlight how tenuous abortion access is in some states. It also highlights how other states have to absorb the need for procedures. Minnesota, which abortion activist and author Robin Marty noted was a relative bastion of abortion availability in a Midwest area laden with restrictions, has already seen pressure to provide services for surrounding areas. 

That's also true in Florida, where the Planned Parenthood in Tallahassee has seen a 30% uptick in patients from out of state since February 2021. People are traveling there from several southern states with less access, including Louisiana and and Mississippi, two states that are both struggling with coronavirus surges and have already severely limited abortion access. 

The same is true as coronavirus cases spike in Texas, where abortion is already highly restricted. This could lead to another round of pandemic-related restrictions on reproductive health services. Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, who has blocked mask mandates in the state as cases soar, is asking hospitals to "voluntarily postpone medical procedures for which delay will not result in loss of life or a deterioration in the patient's condition." 

Given that Abbott used the earlier stages of the pandemic to ban or sharply restrict access to abortion as nonessential, it isn't far-fetched to think he would do that again. And, once again, other states will have to absorb the need. 

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.