Women’s Reproductive Rights in the Pandemic

Jatinder Hayre discusses the impact of the pandemic on women's reproductive rights and health inequalities.

Let’s discuss some uncomfortable truths, there are two contradictions of the COVID-19 crisis: infection and infliction. Even though women[i] appear to have a noticeably lower mortality rate and lower risk of serious illness from the COVID-19 infection, they have still borne the greatest infliction of the pandemic. Lockdown measures in the name of wider public health have had an unspeakable toll on women’s reproductive health and wellbeing.

But this is precisely the problem. These issues ought not be unspeakable; instead, they should be openly discussed. Silence is detrimental; and the Polish Abortion Ban proves it. On the 22nd of October 2020, the Constitutional Tribunal Court of Poland issued a near total ban on abortions. In such a regression and outright attack on reproductive rights, one would expect turmoil and public outcry: but no, we got silence. State-sponsored silence. The Prime Minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, ordered the military police to enforce lockdown restrictions on the same day a women's strike was organised. COVID-19 lockdown restrictions have destroyed accountability, and human rights have suffered. Pitting one health crisis against another.

Yet, the termination of pregnancy will occur whatever the legal setting. In fact, an unsaid contradiction arises. Countries with the strictest abortion laws often have the highest rates of abortion, whilst countries with a legal status on abortion tend to have the lowest rates of abortion[ii]. Even in Poland, a quarter of all women had terminated a pregnancy previously[iii]. So, what do these destructive, regressive laws achieve? Catastrophic loss of life. Up to 11% of maternal deaths globally are due to illegal, botched abortions[iv]. “Illegal abortions” entail gruelling mechanical attempts with a sharp object, or administration of drugs with minimal evidence and maximal risk. This is the sheer ugliness of illegal abortions.

The recent court ruling in Poland is an extreme example. Nearer to home, right here in the UK, our nation's regressive reproductive rights have been exposed by the pandemic.

The UK Government foresaw the problems of the lockdown on reproductive rights, yet the Government knowingly chose to do nothing. The Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, issued an order to allow women to take both pills required for an early medical abortion in the sanctuary of their own homes[v]. Though, only mere hours later, this was removed from the Government website and described as an “error”. Yes, an “error”, that is the frivolous view they take of the rights and healthcare of women.

Reproductive rights have a precarious status in the UK and are still regulated under criminal law[vi]; as a consequence, obsolete barriers persist in being able to terminate a pregnancy. Namely, the requirement of two doctors certifying the lawfulness of the abortion, and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care determining “where” a legal abortion can take place: 1. Attended a clinic in order to be prescribed both mifepristone and misoprostol. 2. Been supervised administering mifepristone in the clinic. 3. Are ordinarily resident at the place where they self-administer misoprostol[vii]. No other health condition, or any other part of the human anatomy, is so strictly regulated and scrutinised by the state.

The disastrous handling of the pandemic by the UK Government resulted in 23% of abortion clinics being forced to close due to COVID-related staff shortages[viii]. This would have presented as a major health disaster for women in geographically isolated areas. And of course, being heavily regulated under criminal law, meant a simple at-home termination, as is the case in most developed nations, would have been unthinkable in the UK.

A staggering 77% of frontline workers are women, leading a Herculean effort in finding this pandemic. Yet this is a pandemic of privilege, with those controlling the narrative being most insulated from the collateral damages, whilst side-lining the rights and privileges of others. This has included women. Whether it be the precarious nature of reproductive rights in the UK or the total annihilation of these rights in Poland, one health crisis must never give rise to and silence another.

[i] *Note on language: The terms ‘woman’ and ‘women’s health’ are used for brevity. We know that it is not only individuals who identify as women who require access to these healthcare services, including trans men and non-binary individuals, and we fully support efforts to make healthcare services inclusive and sensitive to the needs of people who identify as a different gender than they were assigned at birth.  https://everydayfeminism.com/2014/08/gender-inclusive-discussing-abortion/

[ii] https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/induced-abortion-worldwide

[iii] https://www.theseus.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/138222/thesis_Ewa_Hirvonen.pdf?sequence=1

[iv] https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/10/how-many-women-die-illegal-abortions/572638/

[v] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/24/uk-abortion-law-pills-home-covid-19-outbreak.

[vi] SS.58 and 59 Offences Against the Person Act 1861. We note that the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 does not apply in Scotland, however procuring miscarriage remains a criminal offence in Scotland by virtue of the common law.

[vii] Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, The Abortion Act 1967—Approval of a Class of Places,. 2018.

[viii]  https://www.bpas.org/about-our-charity/press-office/press-releases/healthcare-professionals-call-on-boris-johnson-to-intervene-to-protect-women-s-health-reckless-failure-to-listen-to-scientific-advice-is-putting-vulnerable-women-at-severe-risk/


Jatinder Hayre is a medical student, researcher, and campaigner. He has an interest in Health Inequalities and recently co-authored 'SAGE Report 21: COVID-19 and Health Inequalities'. He is also a member and spokesperson for Keep Our NHS Public. He tweets at @JatinderHayre_
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