The Impacts of COVID-19 on Access to Abortion
The implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for sexual and reproductive rights (SRR) protection are becoming increasingly apparent, with state lockdowns and the re-routing of resources leaving many without access to sexual and reproductive healthcare (SRH). In a joint statement, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the European Parliamentary Forum for SRR expressed concerns over the barriers the pandemic has presented regarding accessing contraception, respectful maternal healthcare, and testing for sexually transmitted infections, and viewed the availability of abortion as a particular concern, given the time-sensitive nature of the procedure.
This pandemic has further limited access to abortion for those living in states with already restrictive abortion regimes. In Poland, abortion is illegal except in cases of sexual crime, severe foetal impairment, or where the pregnant person’s life is at risk. Polish people seeking abortions must therefore travel, usually to Germany or the UK. However, for the past few months, travelling abroad to access abortion services became impossible for many people, as states imposed border restrictions and flights were cancelled. Germany closed its borders to visitors from other EU countries at the end of March, which are only recently re-opening, and the UK is currently imposing a 14-day quarantine period for all visitors. Flights are frequently cancelled with little notice, and the closure of many hotels has created further obstacles. Abortion Support Network, a UK-based charity which funds travel to access abortion services for residents from a number of countries such as Poland and Malta, has launched a COVID-19 fundraiser as travel costs have dramatically increased. The alternative to travelling abroad is to order abortion pills online, risking criminalisation, but this has also become difficult as a result of delays to postal services; this puts people in an extremely difficult situation, forcing people to choose between clandestine abortion or travelling abroad during a pandemic, both avenues presenting risks to health.
The current crisis has also exacerbated inequalities in abortion access within states where abortion is legal. In Spain, territorial inequality has been worsened by the mandatory multiple in-person visits to abortion clinics due to a three-day waiting period, requiring people to repeatedly risk exposing themselves to the virus. As Spain has blocked access to Women on Web, a website which provides abortion pills in cases where abortion is restricted, the options for people seeking abortion in Spain are limited. Disparities in access disproportionately affect people of colour, poor people, those living rurally, migrants, refugees, and people with disabilities. Worldwide, many have called for the use of telemedicine for early medical abortions, with some positive responses; the self-administration of medical abortion pills at home has been temporarily approved up to 10 weeks-gestation in England and Wales.
However, some states have sought to further restrict abortion rights using the pandemic as a pretext. Poland’s conservative government, led by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), have brought back a bill that would remove the exception for cases of severe foetal impairment, the ground which makes up most of the country’s terminations. In the past, attempts to pass the bill have been met with widespread – and effective – protest, but protesting is currently difficult due to health concerns and the issuing of fines for protesters who are deemed to have breached social distancing rules. In the US, anti-abortion groups have pushed for the closure of abortion clinics by suggesting that abortion services divert medical resources from the COVID-19 response. At least 11 US states have attempted to restrict abortion access by deeming it non-essential, with significant consequences for poor and low-income people due to the resultant increase in costs and the distances between abortion clinics.
The UN policy brief on COVID-19 and human rights explicitly recommends that states take action to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic on women, including in relation to SRR. Despite calls from the US to remove references to SRH, the UN’s response plan includes SRH as essential healthcare, requiring states to address the additional barriers to accessing services such as abortion that the pandemic has presented.