Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Despite the claims that COVID-19 has become less lethal, there is growing evidence that we are only just starting to see the extent of collateral damage that this global health crisis may bring. The latest addition to the list of indirect impacts of the pandemic, is the spread of limited access to safe and timely abortions.
Mounting data suggests that current health crisis is being used by pro-life politicians and religion organizations as a pretext to limit women’s access to abortion. This trend appears to have started in the USA, where local conservative governments used the virus as an excuse to restrict access to terminations. Ohio was the first state to send letters to clinics, ordering them to stop performing “non-essential” procedures. Other states— Alabama, Arkansas Oklahoma, Tennessee, Louisiana and Iowa – promptly followed suit.
The same trend has replicated across Europe. In Poland – which is notorious for some of the strictest abortion laws in the EU – the ruling Peace and Justice party is pushing for legislation that would further criminalize abortion to include a ban on abortions even when irreversible damage to a fetus is expected. Official data suggests, just over 1,000 terminations were carried out in Poland in 2018. But more than 150,000 women in Poland find other ways to access abortion each year. The majority either order medical abortion pills online or travel abroad for the procedure. But the current restrictions on movement mean that women in Poland are unable to travel to neighboring countries to undergo the procedure and supply chains for abortion pills have been disrupted, meaning that polish women are facing even tougher obstacles while seeking abortions.
Unfortunately, the Polish government isn’t the only country in Europe that is using the pandemic to change abortion laws. Many hospitals in Slovakia have stopped performing the procedure following a government decision to postpone most surgeries in order to slow the rate of COVID-19 infections. Considering that the abortion pill, is not legal in Slovakia, some women used to travel to neighboring Austria to access either method of abortion. However again, women are now prohibited from doing so because of border closings.
Marie Stopes International, an NGO which provides contraception and abortion services in 37 countries around the world including the UK, US and Romania, offers a very bleak outlook. The organization estimates that the disruptions caused by the pandemic could lead to an additional, 2.7 million more unsafe abortions, and an additional 11,000 pregnancy-related deaths.
This pandemic is reshaping our world, but it must also be an opportunity to overhaul reproductive health services. The chaos and anxiety surrounding COVID-19 should not be used as a distraction from harmful attempts to sneak through dangerous legislation and capitalize on women’s bodies. The only person who should have to right to decide to continue or terminate a pregnancy is the person who is pregnant – not the same old boys club that is found in parliament or parish. The prime focus of Governments during the pandemic should be protecting our health; not interfering in and jeopardizing women’s rights.