With the U.S. Supreme Court taking a new direction with the addition of Amy Coney Barrett, many are concerned about Roe v. Wade and what will happen to abortion access. But in several states across the U.S., abortion is already largely inaccessible even if it’s technically legal. That’s become even more true during the pandemic, as many providers have had to completely shut down or haven’t had the workers to make carrying out abortions possible. In South Dakota, abortions have been entirely inaccessible in the state since March when the Planned Parenthood in Sioux Falls halted all procedures.
Dozens of restrictions to abortion exist in South Dakota, and because the state has only one clinic, resources are scarce. For decades, Planned Parenthood flew in physicians from elsewhere to perform abortions as-needed. But when COVID-19 hit, the safety risks were just too great — and Planned Parenthood completely stopped all abortion services, citing travel concerns as the main reason. This means that for seven months, abortions weren’t available at all in South Dakota, which is the longest the state has gone without it since it was legalized in 1973.
As it is, South Dakota currently has some of the strictest abortion regulations in the country, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Abortions cannot be performed past 20 weeks of pregnancy, which is when doctors are able to detect fatal fetal abnormalities, and Medicaid and other government-funded insurance options do not cover abortions — even for survivors of rape and incest. South Dakota also requires a 72-hour waiting period that essentially forces patients who seek abortions to take two trips to the health care centre in Sioux Falls. Doctors who work at the clinic are also required to tell patients that they have "an existing relationship with that unborn human being" and "the abortion will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being” during abortion consultations.
Despite these harsh laws, people who needed an abortion still had more access to the procedure before the pandemic. Prior to this year, the clinic performed abortions once a week on Thursdays, when they could fly doctors in to see patients for the day. But even then, bad weather regularly delayed flights and disrupted scheduling. The pandemic just added more barriers, ultimately making it untenable. "It was a really, really hard decision to suspend services, and really painful for us, especially after decades of working so hard to keep services open. But we just couldn’t overcome the coronavirus," Sarah Stoesz, the president of the Planned Parenthood clinic there told CBS News.
Now, as of October, abortions are once again being performed in South Dakota — but only for one day a month. Because of the short time slot, Stoesz says it hasn’t been possible to guarantee that most people can even make appointments. Planned Parenthood has had to continually turn patients away and tell them to either wait until the following month or find a way to go out of state. In the last seven months, patients have now been forced to break stay-at-home orders and put their safety at risk to cross state lines just to obtain an abortion.
Abortion rights groups and organizers have long been working to broaden access, and have continued to try to get patients the appointments they need even during the pandemic. South Dakota Access for Every Woman, an initiative run by Ann and Evelyn Griesse — two women in their seventies — fundraises money to help patients pay for their abortions. Evelyn Griesse says she works with volunteers from around South Dakota in order to arrange travel schemes to help patients get an abortion — no matter how far they must travel.
"It's legality versus access," Kim, one of the co-founders of Justice Empowerment Network, a local abortion rights group, told CBS. "It doesn't matter if it's legal if there's no doctor within five hours of you and you don't have a car.”