Former Gov. Jeff Colyer, a candidate for the GOP nomination for governor in 2022, criticized Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly for a rise in abortions during 2020 after she allowed clinics to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — A surge in out-of-state residents seeking abortions in Kansas last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic moved incidence of the procedure to a level comparable to 2012 and 2013 when Republican Gov. Sam Brownback was signing bills and championing regulations to curtail access to abortion.
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly kept abortion clinics in Kansas open during the pandemic by deeming the facilities essential to public health. Temporary closure of abortion clinics in nearby states factored in a rise of 626 abortions in Kansas during 2020. The state’s total of 7,542 represented an increase of 9%.
Documented abortions in Kansas tend to be divided between in-state and out-of-state women, but that trend was broken in 2020. Abortions among residents of Kansas climbed 2.7%, while the number for out-of-staters shot up 15%.
Statistics from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment indicated the increase in Kansas was linked to services provided to patients from four nearby states. Key contributors to Kansas’ influx: Texas, up from 25 abortions in 2019 to 289 abortions in 2020; Oklahoma, up from 85 to 277; and Arkansas, up from 40 to 74. The number of Missouri residents obtaining an abortion in Kansas climbed by 23, pushing that annual total to 3,201.
Jeff Colyer, an Overland Park physician campaigning for the GOP nomination for governor in 2022, said the 9% expansion of abortions reported by KDHE was a consequence of Kelly’s decision not to shutter abortion clinics in the pandemic.
“There is only one person to blame,” Colyer said. “This is the direct result of Laura Kelly declaring abortion clinics essential even while she was closing churches, schools and small businesses.”
Kelly issued detailed executive orders declaring hospitals and other businesses essential. She decided certain business operators, such as barbers and hairdressers, had to close in an attempt to thwart spread of COVID-19. Her directive restricting mass gatherings at churches was blocked after the filing of a lawsuit. Public school instruction statewide transitioned, with a few exceptions, to an online format.
A spokeswoman for Kelly said Tuesday the governor wouldn’t have a comment about the new KDHE report on abortion. Kelly is a candidate for re-election in 2022.
“Abortion is time-sensitive, essential health care,” said Rachel Sweet, regional director of public policy at Planned Parenthood Great Plains. “Decisions about whether to end a pregnancy are deeply personal and should be left to a woman in consultation with her health care provider — not politicians.”
Under Brownback, KDHE records show, the number of abortions in Kansas declined in six of seven years that he served as governor. The overall total fell from 8,373 in 2010 to 6,826 in 2017 while Brownback was the state’s governor.
Following Brownback’s resignation, Colyer served as governor from Jan. 31, 2018, to Jan. 14, 2019. During 2018, KDHE said, abortions in Kansas increased by 222 to 7,048. More than half — 122 — of that surge came from out-of-state women.
During Kelly’s first year in office in 2019, abortions declined by 132 to 6,916 before expanding in 2020 to 7,542. The preliminary count for 2020 fell between Brownback-era totals of 7,598 in 2012 and 7,485 in 2013.
In August 2022, Kansans have an opportunity to vote on a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution on the issue of abortion. Passage of the amendment, labeled Value Them Both by proponents, would reverse a 2019 decision by the Kansas Supreme Court that the state constitution’s Bill of Rights protects a woman’s right to an abortion.
The state’s highest court referenced a section in the state’s Bill of Rights declaring “all men are possessed of equal and inalienable natural rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The justices then wrote: “We are now asked: Is this declaration of rights more than an idealized aspiration? And, if so, do the substantive rights include a woman’s right to make decisions about her body, including the decision whether to continue her pregnancy? We answer these questions, ‘Yes.'”
Kansans for Life, a lobbying organization that waged a two-year struggle to secure the Legislature’s endorsement of the proposed abortion amendment, referred to the 9% increase in Kansas as “disturbing.”
Danielle Underwood, spokeswoman for KFL, said governors of Texas and Oklahoma declared elective medical procedures, including abortion, not essential and prohibited them to protect medical personnel from unnecessary exposure to COVID-19 and to conserve medical supplies.
Underwood said in a statement Kelly’s leadership during a year of expanded reliance on abortion meant the governor should now be called the “abortion industry governor.” The KFL statement didn’t address one-year increases in Kansas abortions that transpired while Brownback and Colyer served as governor.
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