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Halt to abortions during pandemic led S.D. women to get procedure in other states

Advocates for abortion rights say some South Dakota women also turned to potentially dangerous alternatives in an attempt to terminate their pregnancies in 2020.

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Gala Byrun, of Sioux Falls, volunteered in mid-July 2021 for 40 Days for Life, a national pro-life campaign that enlists volunteers to station outside of Planned Parenthood facilities to give women other options to abortion. (Danielle Ferguson / South Dakota News Watch)
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A temporary halt to abortions in 2020 at the only clinic in South Dakota where the procedures take place led to a big drop in abortions performed in the state last year, but it did not prevent women who wanted to terminate their pregnancies from doing so elsewhere.

During the seven-month pause in procedures at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Sioux Falls, hundreds of South Dakota women traveled out of state to get an abortion and many requested financial help to pay for and get access to the procedure.

Advocates for abortion rights say some South Dakota women also turned to potentially dangerous alternatives in an attempt to terminate their pregnancies in 2020.

According to a data analysis by News Watch, abortions performed in South Dakota fell from about 400 in 2019 to 125 in 2020. But last year, more than 450 South Dakota women traveled to a different state to obtain an abortion, far more than in a typical year, according to statistics from health departments in neighboring states.

The decline of in-state abortions in 2020 is largely attributed to Planned Parenthood halting the procedures for seven months, when the out-of-state physicians that typically travel to Sioux Falls to do the procedures one day a week were restricted from travel due to COVID-19.

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Supporters of access to abortion counter-protest an anti-abortion rally in Sioux Falls in October 2020. The Justice Empowerment Network led the counter protest when Operation Save America, a Christian-based pro-life organization, visited Sioux Falls. (Photo courtesy of Justice Empowerment Network)

Abortion rights advocates say women in South Dakota have for years traveled long distances to out-of-state clinics because of the restrictive laws in their home state.

But data from neighboring states clearly show that pregnant women in South Dakota more frequently traveled to other states for the procedure in 2020 compared to previous years.

“Historically, we know people are going to get abortions whether it’s available or not, whether it’s legal or not,” said Kim Floren, a board member of the Justice Empowerment Network, the former National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League of South Dakota. “There’s no reason people should have to risk their health and safety to have bodily autonomy in 2021. Everybody should have the right to decide what to do with their body regardless of where they live.”

In October 2020, Planned Parenthood in Sioux Falls resumed offering abortions one day per month and recently started offering the procedures two days per month.

One leader of the anti-abortion movement in South Dakota said the pause on the procedures in the state in 2020 “saved more lives,” was “wonderful” for the efforts to eliminate abortion in the state and is one of a number of factors contributing to the anti-abortion movement “winning this war.”

“This temporary halting of abortions in South Dakota … it’s one of the good things that came out of COVID restrictions,” said South Dakota Right to Life Director Dale Bartscher. “It is our goal to see that abortion is illegal and unthinkable.”

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Advocates for the right to choose abortion said that getting the procedures during the pandemic was disproportionately more difficult for women with lower incomes, women in rural areas and women of color.

Some pregnant women leave the state to sidestep South Dakota’s two mandatory doctor’s appointments and the 72-hour waiting period, the longest pre-procedure waiting period in the country. South Dakota also requires that women get counseling from a pregnancy help center in those 72 hours and that doctors must give state-mandated medical language to patients before the procedure.

South Dakota also does not help pay for abortions, and is the only state to not comply with a federal requirement that the state Medicaid health insurance program pay for abortions in cases of rape or incest.

“‘Hard’ isn’t even the word for it,” said Evelyn Griesse, co-founder of the abortion rights group South Dakota Access for Every Woman. “It has become much more punitive against women across the country, and against practitioners.”

Griesse, who has been an advocate for abortion rights since the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized the procedure, said her organization helps around 150 to 200 women gain access to the procedure in a typical year. In 2020, she estimates more than 300 reached out for help.

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Evelyn Griesse, 79, discusses her years of advocating for access to abortion in South Dakota. She co-founded South Dakota Access for Every Women, which offers financial aid to women seeking abortions. (Danielle Ferguson / South Dakota News Watch)

In 2019, 33 South Dakota women went to Nebraska for an abortion. In 2020, 132 traveled there for the procedure. Last year, 152 South Dakota women traveled to Minnesota for an abortion, compared to 99 in 2019.

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North Dakota, which also has just one abortion clinic, took in 10 more patients from South Dakota in 2020 compared to the year prior. Overall, the number of abortions in North Dakota slightly increased last year, from 1,121 in 2019 to 1,171 in 2020.

Iowa experienced a jump of nearly 200 out-of-state patients seeking an abortion in 2020 compared to 2019. The Iowa Department of Health did not provide data specific to South Dakota residents, but Sioux Falls-area advocates estimate a good number of those patients came from eastern South Dakota.

In 2020, 123 South Dakota women went to Colorado for an abortion, down slightly from the 134 who traveled there in 2019. Abortions there have been increasing over the last five years. An increasing number of patients from out-of-state have traveled to Colorado for the procedure in the last five years, including women from South Dakota and hundreds from Texas and Wyoming.

Access to abortion in South Dakota has declined steadily in recent years and the number of the procedures in the state has also fallen. In the past several decades, lawmakers in South Dakota have passed and upheld among the most restrictive laws in the nation.

“Lawmakers chipped away at access, so now it’s really hard to get an abortion in South Dakota,” said Dr. Marvin Buehner, a Rapid City-based OB-GYN who does not perform elective abortions.

The majority of abortions done in South Dakota are self-paid by patients. Most abortions in the state cost between $600 and $700.

Some women also turned to dangerous alternatives, said Floren and Griesse. Both advocates recalled stories of women who, out of desperation to terminate a pregnancy, took excessive amounts of Vitamin C or herbs, or they ordered potentially unsafe pills from the internet.

State Sen. Al Novstrup, R-Aberdeen, said he is not concerned that some South Dakota women had to drive longer distances than usual to have an abortion in 2020.

“People can’t travel an hour or two to make a life-changing decision? Like that’s a big obstacle? People drive from Aberdeen to Sioux Falls all the time for a basketball game,” said Novstrup, a new board member for South Dakota Right to Life. “It’s an argument that’s insulting."

Access to reproductive healthcare is even more limited for Native American women in South Dakota who primarily receive care from the federal Indian Health Service.

Due to a 1976 amendment that prohibits the use of federal money to pay for an abortion, IHS does not provide abortion except in rare cases, such as rape, incest or if the mother’s life is threatened by the pregnancy.

Indigenous women, who experience rape and incest at higher rates than any other group of women, are put at even more of a disadvantage because of this lack of financial aid and access, said Charon Asetoyer, CEO of the center.

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