Life

Covid-19 is having an alarming effect on reproductive rights around the world – including in the UK

In times of crisis, it’s disturbing to see how quickly women’s bodily autonomy is restricted. But there are things we can do to help. 

Moving through the world as a woman feels infinitely more secure when you can access safe, legal abortion. Even if it’s a right you never have to invoke, simply knowing you possess it functions as an invisible safety net; as a form of physical, mental and emotional insurance.

Yet the coronavirus pandemic has confirmed beyond any doubt just how fragile women’s reproductive rights really are. Around the world, including in countries where abortion is legal, the spread of Covid-19 has seen the dramatic scaling-back – and in some cases, attempted suspension – of essential abortion services.

“Abortion is essential healthcare but some women and girls are struggling to safely access the service during the pandemic. In many places, accessing normal clinical services has become virtually impossible, hospitals and clinics have reduced reproductive health services, and people’s travel has been restricted,” Chiara Capraro, Amnesty International UK’s women’s rights programme director, tells Stylist

“It’s extremely worrying that some US states and Poland are attempting to use the pandemic as an excuse to tighten already restrictive abortion laws. Such moves are a cruel and twisted attack on women’s reproductive rights and healthcare.”

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Women in England will be able to take abortion pills at home during the coronavirus outbreak

It’s not hard to see why medical staff would prefer, where possible, to avoid surgical abortions during the pandemic. These involve a small operation, and require a pregnant woman and medical practitioners to be in the same room together. But medical abortions, which are used to terminate more than three-quarters of pregnancies in England and Wales, simply require the pregnant person to take two pills – and have been proven to be safe for women to induce themselves at home (a practice known as telemedicine).

Crucially, women have already been allowed to take misoprostol – the second abortion pill – at home since 2018. The only difference is that women will no longer have to take the first medication, mifepristone, in a clinic. “This change will not alter the safety and efficacy of early medical abortion. It really is a small change in many respects, but it will make a huge difference to women,” says Katherine O’Brien, associate director of communications and campaigns at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas).

Women protest Poland abortion coronavirus law change
Coronavirus and abortion: protesters in Wroclaw, Poland, demonstrate against the Polish government's attempt to introduce a new abortion bill during the lockdown

Despite this, anti-choice advocates from Northern Ireland to the US are still trying to use the pandemic as an excuse for limiting abortions – framing them as an unnecessary burden on overstretched healthcare systems.

Even politicians who theoretically believe in a woman’s right to choose have been sloppy about ensuring abortion access during the pandemic. The UK government dithered and U-turned on how terminations should be provided while the country is in lockdown: in late March, it revoked a just-announced policy allowing women in England to take abortion pills at home, claiming it had been “published in error”.

Within a week, the government changed its mind again, announcing that women in England could terminate a pregnancy at home up to 10 weeks. The Scottish government also approved abortion telemedicine, while the Welsh government said it would permit home abortions until nine weeks of pregnancy. Bpas and Marie Stopes are now sending out abortion pills to women in England, Wales and Scotland by post.

“Women desperately needed this service during Covid-19 and we were receiving daily calls from women who were not able to attend appointments due to travel restrictions and self-isolation,” says Dr Caroline Gazet, clinical director for Marie Stopes UK.

But she adds that issues regarding abortion access existed long before lockdown, citing controlling or coercive partners, anti-choice protesters, and travel and childcare issues as examples. “Covid-19 has just highlighted the problems women already face on a daily basis when trying to access abortion.”

Coronavirus and reproductive rights: countries around the world are restricting abortion under Covid-19 measures

Access to abortion is not an expendable luxury. Restrictions on reproductive rights during the Covid-19 crisis will have real and devastating consequences worldwide – and will disproportionately affect women belonging to marginalised groups, including women with disabilities, women living in poverty and survivors of domestic violence. According to a report in medical journal The Lancet, the disruption of reproductive and sexual health services– including abortion – will likely lead to a global spike in maternal mortality rates (the number of women dying during or shortly after pregnancy).

Marie Stopes International (MSI), meanwhile, has warned that up to 9.5 million women and girls are at risk of losing access to its contraception and safe abortion services in 2020 due to Covid-19. The charity says this could lead to an additional 3m unintended pregnancies, 2.7m unsafe abortions and 11,000 pregnancy-related deaths around the world.

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“Women and girls will pay the price if governments do not act now to safeguard access to essential healthcare, including safe abortion and contraception,” says Simon Cooke, MSI’s chief executive. “Abortion is an essential and time-sensitive procedure, and delays caused by social distancing, healthcare shutdowns and travel restrictions will have a profound impact.”

If you feel moved to help support reproductive rights around the world, one of the most effective and immediate actions you can take is donating to organisations like Bpas, Marie Stopes International, Abortion Support Network – which assists those who need and are able to travel abroad for abortions – and Women Help Women, which sends abortion medication to people in countries with restrictive abortion laws.

One major effect of Covid-19 “is that now almost everyone knows what it feels like to live in a country with poor abortion access or restrictive abortion law,” says Mara Clarke, Abortion Support Network’s founder and a former Stylist Woman of the Week. “Those of us who live in places like England should be even more grateful for our right to access free, safe, legal abortion.”

As well as donating, Clarke suggests getting involved “in any country’s campaign to allow the use of telemedicine or to liberalise strict abortion laws. The best place to find these all in one place is via The International Campaign For Women’s Right to Safe Abortion.

“I know these can seem like dark times,” Clarke continues. “But I am really hopeful that this pandemic has the knock-on effect of, at the very least, destigmatising abortion in general and home use of early medical abortion in particular.”

Below, Stylist unpacks how the coronavirus crisis is affecting access to abortion in five countries around the world.

Abortion protest in Northern Ireland
Coronavirus and abortion: members of Alliance for Choice protest in Northern Ireland, October 2019

Northern Ireland

A new law legalising abortion up to 12 weeks came into force in Northern Ireland on 31 March. But politicians in Belfast spectacularly failed to decide how the new law would actually be implemented. In early April, the country’s Department of Health was still advising women to travel to England for abortions – a policy that was at best irresponsible, at worst impossible for women to follow in the age of coronavirus.

Facing legal action from pro-choice groups (as well as the attempted suicides of two pregnant women), Northern Irish authorities announced on 9 April that abortions could be carried out in the country’s hospitals. But unlike in England, Scotland and Wales, it is still illegal for women to take abortion pills at home in Northern Ireland – meaning that women must travel to clinics for early medical abortions. It remains impossible to have a surgical abortion after 10 weeks.

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“We are now living in an unprecedented pandemic and while everyone is being advised they should not travel, women seeking abortion care are being forced to do so, placing them, their families, healthcare workers and wider society at risk needlessly,” says Naomi Connor, co-convener of Northern Irish campaign group Alliance for Choice. “Some political decision makers who oppose abortion provision in Northern Ireland will stop at nothing to place adequate abortion care out of reach for ideological and not healthcare reasons.”

Abortion protest in Poland
Coronavirus and abortion: women defied the lockdown in Poland to protest new abortion restrictions - while observing social distancing

Poland

In early April, the Polish government announced plans to tighten the country’s already draconian abortion laws. Currently, terminations are only legal in Poland if continuing with a pregnancy would endanger a woman’s life, the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, or a foetus is severely impaired. The latter reason accounts for 98% of all terminations in Poland – yet banning abortion in exactly these circumstances is exactly what the Polish government had in mind.

What does this have to do with Covid-19? Essentially, a previous attempt to introduce this law in 2016 was met with furious mass protests – but street demonstrations are now prohibited in Poland under emergency pandemic measures. Pro-choice activists accused the government of trying to exploit the virus, and defied the lockdown to protest the proposed restrictions – while still observing social distancing rules.

Poland’s parliament deferred a final decision on the bill on 16 April, but it could still make a comeback. Even if it doesn’t, many women in Poland who need an abortion are still at risk. Since the country closed its borders due to coronavirus, women can no longer travel abroad for terminations.

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Malta

Often overlooked in discussions about reproductive rights, Malta is the only country in Europe and the Commonwealth where abortion is still illegal in all circumstances. Inevitably, this doesn’t stop women in Malta ending unwanted or unviable pregnancies; it simply means they must travel abroad for the procedure. Up to 400 women are estimated to leave Malta for abortions each year.

But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the Maltese government has suspended all inbound and some outbound flights to and from the country – making it almost impossible for women to travel for terminations.

Pro-choice protest in Argentina 2020
Coronavirus and reproductive rights: before Covid-19 hit Argentina, women there took to the streets to march for abortion rights

Argentina

A staggering 97% of women in Latin America currently live under restrictive abortion laws. And according to the UN, an estimated 18m additional women across Latin America and the Caribbean will lose regular access to modern contraceptives due to Covid-19 – making a lack of abortion provision even more concerning.

The effect of the pandemic on reproductive rights is particularly striking in Argentina, which was until recently set to become the first major Latin American country to legalise abortion. On 1 March, President Alberto Fernández announced his plans to send a legal abortion bill to congress, saying: “Society in the 21st century needs to respect the individual choice of its members to freely decide about their bodies.”

Within days, however, Argentina’s first coronavirus death had been confirmed, the country’s borders shut and the legislature closed. The abortion bill’s review is now indefinitely postponed, and its future is uncertain.

Coronavirus and abortion USA
Coronavirus and reproductive rights: in early March, pro-choice and anti-choice protesters marched in Washington DC

USA

Perhaps unsurprisingly, several conservative regions in the US appear to be using Covid-19 as an excuse to limit abortion. States including Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas have all classified abortion as a non-essential medical procedure, a step that would make terminations impossible to access in all but very specific circumstances (for example, if a woman’s life would be immediately threatened by continuing with a pregnancy).

In recent weeks, federal judges have halted the effective abortion bans in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas. But it remains to be seen if other states will attempt to implement their own curbs on abortion – and if these will all be blocked by judges. 

Images: Getty Images