Special Reports

Access to abortion now farther away

The slaying of George Tiller has made Wichita more typical of medium-size Midwestern cities when it comes to access to abortion, according to experts and statistics.

With Tiller dead and his Women's Health Care Services clinic closed, the closest abortion providers are now in Overland Park, about a three-hour drive each way.

That's not unusual for the South or Midwest, where abortions are most heavily restricted, said Jenny O'Donnell of the Massachusetts-based Abortion Access Project.

"A three-hour trip time is not unusual for many women in America, especially if you look at places like Mississippi and Arkansas, where substantial populations don't have an abortion provider," O'Donnell said.

For south-central Kansas, "It's going to be a big adjustment" for those seeking abortion services, O'Donnell said.

Nationally, about 87 percent of counties have no abortion provider, according to 2005 statistics from the Guttmacher Institute, a New York think tank focused on sexual and reproductive health.

In the Midwest, the percentage of counties without a provider was 94. In Kansas, 96 percent of counties had no abortion provider, before Tiller's clinic closure added Sedgwick County to the list.

Providers decline

In 1992, Kansas had 15 abortion providers; by 2005, that number had declined to seven.

Nationwide, the number of providers declined from 2,380 to 1,787, the Guttmacher report said.

"What we've seen has been a pretty consistent decline" in the number of abortion providers since about 1983, said O'Donnell.

Experts say several factors contributed to the decline, including:

 Public protest and social pressure.

 Stricter regulation that made providing abortions more costly and complicated.

 A general trend in the medical industry toward consolidation into larger and more specialized practices.

But Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, said the decrease in numbers is somewhat misleading.

Major clinics that specialize in the procedure have remained essentially stable, while the decline primarily affected hospitals and small providers who did a few abortions a year, Saporta said.

Wichita once had at least four abortion providers.

The last non-Tiller clinic closed in 2006, when the owners sold the practice to Tiller.

The clinic building, on Central, was bought by Operation Rescue and converted into the anti-abortion group's headquarters.

'A significant gap'

According to statistics from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, 1,406 women in Sedgwick and adjacent counties aborted pregnancies last year.

That number has been fairly consistent with 1,447 area women receiving abortions in 2006 and 1,376 in 2007.

With Tiller's clinic closed for slightly more than a week, Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri has begun to see an increase in contact with women from south-central Kansas, said the organization's executive director, Peter Brownlie.

"The answer is yes, but I don't have specific numbers," Brownlie said.

He said the loss of the Wichita clinic creates what is "obviously a significant gap."

"At the present time, there's no place between Denver and Kansas City where a woman can obtain abortion care," Brownlie said. "That's a significant barrier for women throughout the state that have that need."

The Center for Women's Health in Overland Park and Central Family Medicine in Kansas City, Kan., also provide abortion services in the Kansas City area.

A nationwide hotline operated by the National Abortion Federation has been assisting patients who have had to make new plans since Tiller was killed, said Saporta.

In addition, the hotline is offering referrals for Kansas women who may not know where to go with Tiller's clinic out of the picture, she said.

KDHE figures show that 10,642 abortions were performed in Kansas last year.

Women who live in Kansas accounted for 5,511 of those, slightly more than half the abortions performed.

Some 5,131 women from out of state received abortions in Kansas in 2008.

Nearly nine out of ten of the out-of-state patients, 4,555 women, were from Missouri.

That eclipsed Oklahoma, No. 2 on the list, which had 204 women crossing the state line for abortions.

Brownlie said the high number of Missourians coming to Kansas for abortions is "because of the fact that the Kansas City metro area straddles the state line and the providers all happen to be located on the Kansas side."

He said there's no significant difference in abortion regulation between the two states and Planned Parenthood does offer non-surgical medical pill abortions at its facility in downtown Kansas City, Mo.

The other Missouri providers are concentrated in the St. Louis and Columbia areas, he said.