The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the ways of life, at least to some degree, for everyone in the world. We must do everything we can to ensure vulnerable groups are not left behind as we adapt to what may seem like an entirely new way of life. Prior to this pandemic, access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare was already an extremely complex and contentious issue. The addition of almost worldwide lockdown and quarantine measures have only added more barriers. The travel restrictions, closures, economic shutdown, and lockdown guidelines have all worsened existing barriers to accessing this necessary healthcare. These factors, as well as the politicization of abortion, have sparked new barriers for those seeking them.
The International Planned Parenthood Federation reported that over 5,000 reproductive health clinics globally have closed since the start of the pandemic due to COVID lockdowns and social distancing measures. Countless others have had to limit hours and the services provided. Access to contraceptive supplies and testing for STIs have also been affected. Some sexual health clinics which provide low-cost birth control, counseling, testing, and treatment have largely suspended in-person services.
Some countries have cleverly adapted to these new conditions in ways that have allowed people to receive the care they need. For example, in multiple countries including Colombia and the United Kingdom, reproductive healthcare providers have started using “telemedicine” to provide essential services such as abortions. This process involves a consultation over phone or video chat, then having the necessary medication sent to the patient. Afterward, the patient’s status is checked upon. This has allowed some people seeking sexual healthcare, and specifically abortions, to receive them despite travel restrictions or clinic closures.
Dangers of postponement
The World Health Organization classified abortion as an essential procedure on May 27th. Despite this, some places, particularly in the United States, have started using the cancellation or postponement of “elective” medical procedures and surgeries as an excuse to limit abortion access. The politicization of abortion is not a new topic in the United States.
The historical misclassification of many abortions as “elective” is also central to the vulnerability of abortion care. The long history of attacks on reproductive healthcare is something people in the USA are very familiar with. Some governors have used this pandemic, and especially the high publicized shortage of personal protection equipment, to try and limit the guaranteed right to abortion. Despite extensive evidence to the contrary, anti-abortion groups continue to push the false claim that abortion often leads to complications that end with the patient needing care in the emergency department. This is completely untrue as the major complication rate from a first-trimester aspiration (surgical) abortion is 0.16 percent.
The evidence of the safety of abortion procedures is overwhelming, and it is far less risky and much less resource-intensive than carrying a pregnancy to term. Even in cases where the procedures haven’t been canceled outright, the dangers of having to postpone abortions are plentiful. It is profoundly physically and mentally taxing to continue to carry an unwanted pregnancy. Additionally, the chance of complications from an abortion procedure only increases as time goes on. If people seeking abortions are forced to postpone the procedure long enough, it may even disqualify them from obtaining the procedure at all, depending on the rules and regulations in place.
The barriers are numerous
The financial hardships faced by millions in the wake of the pandemic have also created new obstacles. Many have lost employment and income. In places where health insurance is tied to employment, the already existing barriers to accessing comprehensive reproductive healthcare have only worsened. Even in countries where abortion is legalized, it is not covered by insurance, and those seeking the procedure must pay out of pocket. The pandemic also worsens the prominent issues of travel costs, the costs of medicines, and the time taken off of work. It is important to note how lower class people seeking reproductive healthcare are facing even more barriers to access it.
Some people living in more conservative societies, where reproductive healthcare is still a taboo topic, are also finding themselves in precarious situations. Especially those who have had to quarantine with their families who may not approve of abortion, seeking the procedure is near impossible. Even if they are able to overcome all the other barriers present currently, it would be extremely difficult to hide it from people they are sharing close quarters with. This is just another example of how this pandemic has inadvertently made life significantly harder for people seeking abortions.
Many people seeking reproductive and sexual healthcare all around the world have found themselves in precarious situations during lockdown. Their care is time sensitive and essential. We must continue to advocate for their access to these essential healthcare services and must not let their plights be swept under the rug, especially by those whose have anti-abortion agendas and are claiming to be concerned for people’s welfare.
The bottom line is one we have known for quite some time. Limitations to accessing legal abortion will not prevent abortions from taking place; they will only prevent safe abortions from taking place. We must ensure that the access to safe abortion and other reproductive health services are not ignored during this unprecedented time. Reproductive healthcare is, and will always be, essential. We must continue the fight to ensure these rights are not infringed upon, even in a year as seemingly full of shock and disaster as 2020.
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