Sometimes it seems like the world can’t help but find ways to chip away at women’s reproductive health. From recent pseudo-abortion bans passed in states like Alabama to upcoming SCOTUS hearings surrounding “heartbeat bills,” the right to regulate one’s own uterus — and all it implies — is constantly under threat.
While the effects of the coronavirus on pregnant individuals and newborns are still being studied, it is clear that the pandemic has indeed altered the way uterus-owners are allowed to and able to plan for their own pregnancies. From contraception to pregnancy, reproductive rights have been challenged implicitly and explicitly during the coronavirus pandemic.
Birth control takes many forms. While most think of the traditional “pill,” or a barrier method like a condom, contraception includes a whole host of devices and medications that regulate hormones, prevent pregnancy and bring relief to those experiencing numerous other reproductive health issues. Sixty-two percent of people with reproductive capability are using contraception in the United States alone. Many of these folks use hormone regulators like the pill to mitigate serious health conditions, like endometriosis. Left untreated, disorders like endometriosis can cause pain, infertility and life-threatening afflictions.
Despite the far-reaching demand and need for birth control in its various forms, governments around the world continue to classify its diagnosis and distribution as “non-essential.” This makes access to birth control more difficult in any case. But in the time of the coronavirus, the “non-essential” label can leave many people without the medication they need to prevent pregnancy, illness or worse.
According to Clue’s reports on the subject, “The most likely way that the COVID-19 outbreak will impact access to contraception is by reducing the perceived urgency of contraceptive needs.” The coronavirus has shifted medical priorities to only covering “essential” services and needs. Health care providers can therefore delay visits for contraception, meaning people who regularly use the pill, the shot, the ring, the patch, the implant and the IUD may lose access to their family planning tools and necessary medications.
The coronavirus pandemic is also disrupting supply chains — so even if you can get into a doctor’s office during this time, they may not have the birth control you need. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report, many factories where contraception is produced have been shut down in areas with high case tolls (most notably, China). As travel and delivery delays sweep the globe, inventory may remain low for months. While the specific types of contraception that will be impacted by these disruptions aren’t exactly clear, according to the UNFPA report, it appears to include hormonal birth control (i.e. “the pill”) and condoms. This is particularly hard-hitting in countries where access to birth control is generally difficult to obtain such as India, or in lower-income countries. However, access is being impacted across the globe — New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom have already felt the effects of the lack of inventory.
The UN estimates that “At least 47 million women and girls in low and middle-income countries may not be able to access modern contraceptives amid the pandemic.” As the pandemic exacerbates inequalities and health care systems continue to cancel appointments, these numbers could increase drastically. Particularly in nations that do not have universal health care, such as the United States, reproductive care access is threatened by widespread job loss, with unemployment often resulting in a subsequent loss of health insurance.
The diminished access to contraception during this time pales in comparison, however, to the lack of access to safe, medically performed abortions. With reproductive health care classified as a non-essential service and thousands of medical carriers delaying service, unintended pregnancies have risen while access to abortion has decreased, leading to a worldwide crisis in bodily autonomy and family planning.
In the United States, several low-cost reproductive clinics have been forced to close due to COVID-19 related concerns. University health clinics have also closed, leaving many who rely on University health services (including many college students in the United States) unable to schedule appointments for reproductive and sexual health care. The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics has urged health care providers to reclassify abortion as an “essential” service for these reasons, yet have been unsuccessful in their efforts so far.
In countries where access to abortion is already limited, however, the problem is only exacerbated. Several nations in sub-Saharan African and Asia have seen the closure of any family planning services. The UNFPA has officially classified these countries as “reproductive deserts” as a result of the pandemic, which could result in 7 million unplanned pregnancies as stay-at-home orders continue. According to UNFPA, these pregnancies will not only impact the people who have lost their access (and therefore, right) to family planning — they will hit marginalized communities the hardest, and result in a proportionate amount of unsafe abortions, sexually transmitted infections, and potential fetal and maternal death.
From local college students to mothers in sub-Saharan Africa, the outbreak of COVID-19 is clearly wreaking havoc in the already-precarious realm of reproductive rights. As of March 2020, over 100 NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have released a joint statement demanding governments across the world provide safe and timely access to abortion, contraception and other reproductive health services. While this step is in the right direction, it is imperative to reclassify these services as essential.
As case numbers continue to rise (particularly in the United States), there’s no telling how long the pandemic will last. Each time politicians and health officials classify reproductive rights as nonessential, it chips away at the validity of claims of the serious gravity of reproductive health care.
This problem is not isolated; the loss of access to birth control measures during a public health crisis such as this is part of a larger narrative. Those in power continually discriminate against people with uteruses by classifying life-saving and life-affirming care and decision-making authority as nonessential, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether in a courtroom or a doctor’s office, it’s essential we don’t lose sight of the endgame — ensuring fair and equitable access to reproductive health care for all, during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.