Last time, I commented on the efforts of anti-abortion politicians in Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, and other U.S. states to restrict women’s reproductive rights by declaring abortion a “nonessential” procedure. An article that appeared on 14 June 2020 in The New York Times (“Coronavirus Created an Obstacle Course for Safe Abortion”) discusses the obstacles that exist in some other countries as well. That article, along with websites of UNFPA, WHO, and NPR, are the sources for this post.
Julie Burkhart, a former associate of the murdered abortion doctor George Tiller, founded “Trust Women,” a group that operates clinics in Oklahoma and Kansas. She has commented on the ways that anti-abortion forces are using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to further corrode women’s abortion access. Desperate women have no choice but to travel hundreds of miles in search of abortion. Burkhart’s Kansas clinic has been registering huge increases in patients, many of whom are fleeing from the lockdowns in other jurisdictions. In a recent week, she noted, her clinic saw 250 women, compared to forty per week in more normal times.
The U.S. situation is particularly bleak for a so-called “developed” country, both because of the pandemic’s economic consequences falling disproportionately on poor women and women of color, and because of the highly politicized nature of abortion access here. But even in countries such as Germany and Austria, where women’s reproductive rights are less restricted, public health officials apparently forgot about abortion when they made lists of time-sensitive procedures that should be available immediately rather than postponed. Feminist activists had to remind regional governments and individual hospitals to consider women’s reproductive health and include abortion as an essential, time-sensitive medical need. Another problem in Germany is that some abortion providers themselves are in at-risk categories. In one rural district of Bavaria, for example, the only abortion doctor is over seventy and so had to stop to guard his own health.
There have been some bright spots. France, Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and Colombia have loosened their restrictions on telemedicine. They now permit at-home use of pills for early abortions after a phone or online consultation with a doctor. Health activists are hopeful that this relaxation will continue after the dangers of the pandemic have passed.
In Colombia, professionals in the Orientame reproductive health clinics note that contraceptive access in rural and underserved areas can be erratic under the best of circumstances, so telephone and online consultations for early medical abortions are an important aspect of women’s reproductive health services in the country.
Dr. Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of UNFPA
As always, the worst effects of the coronavirus and the accompanying economic dislocations have hit and will continue to hit women of scarce resources all over the world. Women’s health rights activists and officials of the United Nations sexual and reproductive rights agency UNFPA have been sounding the alarm for months. In April UNFPA’s executive director Dr. Natalia Kanem warned that the travel restrictions and disruptions to regular clinic services caused by the pandemic could result in an added seven million unintended pregnancies worldwide. “As a corollary,” Kanem noted, “unsafe abortions will increase.” Earlier this month the World Health Organization went further, predicting dire consequences if poor countries either cannot or will not support continuing reproductive health services at pre-pandemic levels. “Even a 10 percent reduction in these services could result in an estimated 15 million unintended pregnancies, 3.3 million unsafe abortions and 29,000 additional maternal deaths during the next 12 months,” the WHO warned.