Abortions surged in Kansas during 2020 as clinics saw an influx of patients from other states where there were efforts to restrict the procedure during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A new report made public Friday showed there were 626 more abortions performed in Kansas than in 2019, an increase of 9%.
It was the biggest percentage increase since 1999, when there was a 7% increase in abortions from the year before when the number of abortions increased by 821.
Abortion opponents called the numbers “heartbreaking” and said the governor bears responsibility for the increase.
Abortion rights supporters say it’s evidence of how far women will go when they are in dire need of help.
The preliminary numbers for 2020 show a sudden reversal for a state where abortions have been trending downward for 20 years, with a few slight increases over that time but nothing equal to the number reported Friday.
The state health department reported that there were 7,542 abortions in 2020, up from 6,916 the year before.
A lot of that increase is attributable to the rise in the number of patients coming to Kansas from out of state last year, especially from Texas and Oklahoma, where there were efforts to limit the procedure during the pandemic.
They were among the 11 states during the pandemic that attempted to prohibit all or some abortions, except in cases of a medical emergency that threatened a patient’s life or health, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
The Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights, tracks reproductive rights issues nationally.
“We absolutely did see an uptick, but it was not because we were looking for people to come to the clinic,” said Julie Burkhart, founder and CEO of Trust Women, which provides abortion services in Kansas and Oklahoma.
“It was because people found us because they were desperate,” she said.
The state saw almost a 16% increase in patients from out of state last year, climbing to 3,901 in 2020 from 3,373 the year before.
The number of Kansas patients undergoing an abortion increased about 3%, edging up to 3,641 in 2020 from 3,543 a year earlier.
The state report shows almost 15% of the out-of-state patients undergoing an abortion came from either Texas or Oklahoma.
There were 289 abortion patients from Texas and 277 in Oklahoma, the report shows.
The year before, there were 25 patients from Texas and 85 from Oklahoma, a state preliminary report shows.
In March 2020, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order that barred all surgeries and procedures that were not immediately medically necessary, including abortions that were not essential to save the life of the mother.
The governor said he wanted to increase hospital capacity and conserve personal protective equipment to fight COVID-19.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton warned all licensed health care professionals and facilities, including abortion clinics, that they could face penalties of up to $1,000 or 180 days of jail time if they violated the order.
After a legal challenge to the executive order and a series of legal maneuvers, Abbott issued a new executive order in April in which abortion providers could work.
The new order allowed elective surgeries and procedures in facilities that reserved space for COVID-19 patients and promised not to request protective equipment from public sources.
In Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt also issued an executive order suspending elective surgeries, including abortions unless they were determined to be a medical emergency or were necessary to save the life of the mother.
Burkhart successfully challenged the executive order in court, and the governor later relaxed the order. Burkhart said her clinic went about four weeks without being able to provide any services to patients.
“Because those two states specifically were denying people access to reproductive health care, people were driving to states where access to reproductive health care, namely abortion care, was available,” Burkhart said in an interview Saturday.
“This is a really good lesson to folks who say that they want to see abortion banned in certain areas across this country,” she said.
Planned Parenthod sounded a similar theme.
“No one stops needing sexual and reproductive health care, even in a public health crisis,” said Rachel Sweet, regional director of public policy for Planned Parenthood Great Plains.
“Abortion is time-sensitive, essential health care,” Sweet said in statement.
“People will go to great lengths to access it, even if it means navigating unnecessary political hurdles in the midst of a pandemic,” she said.
Abortion opponents used the new numbers to criticize Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly for allowing abortion providers to remain open during the pandemic.
“This heartbreaking number comes after abortion extremist Gov. Laura Kelly used a recent state court ruling that declared a nearly unlimited right to abortion to keep Kansas abortion clinics open for business during COVID-19 stay-at-home orders,” Kansans for Life said in a statement Saturday.
“At the same time, governors in the nearby states of Texas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska all took a different path: they declared all elective medical procedures, including abortions, non-essential in order to protect medical personnel from unnecessary exposure and conserve needed medical supplies,” KFL said in its statement.
At one point last year, the Sedgwick County Commission urged the governor to stop abortion services during the health emergency confronting the state.
County commissioners wanted to take action based on claims that patients and physicians from out of state were coming to the Trust Women clinic in Wichita.
“My motivation is not about the health care that they provide,” County Commissioner Jim Howell said the time.
“It’s about the fact they are doing procedures with staff that come from outside our community and patients that come from outside our community,” Howell said.
The commission asked the governor to deem abortion services as nonessential, meaning they would be subject to the statewide stay-at-home order put in place to rein in the spread of COVID-19.
Kelly, a staunch supporter of abortion rights, said at the time she thought abortion fell into the category of medical services considered an essential function.
“Women’s reproductive health centers are considered a health care facility and therefore essential,” Kelly said last year.
During the last legislative session, there was an unsucessful move to ensure that abortion clinics could not remain open during an emergency declaration.
Lawmakers turned back a proposal that would have barred the governor from giving preferential treatment to abortion providers over other businesses.
The proposal also would have stopped the governor from treating elective abortion procedures differently from other elective medical procedures.
“When our governor, or any governor, wants to shut people’s businesses down and seriously damage our state’s economy, at the very least I think it’s appropriate to make sure that the abortion industry…suffers along with everybody else,” said Republican state Rep. Jesse Burris of Mulvane during the debate on the amendment.