Accessing Abortion During a Pandemic – Where Are We Now?

Since the huge global impact of the coronavirus pandemic first became apparent at the start of this year, many of those working in sexual and reproductive health care have noted increased barriers to essential services like contraception and abortion.

The theme of this year’s International Safe Abortion Day is access to abortion during the pandemic. So, we asked SAAF grantee partners how they are ensuring no one is left behind when it comes to ending a pregnancy in a safe way, months into a global pandemic.

What issues have you seen with abortion care during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Many partners have reported major barriers to reproductive care in their countries as a result of travel restrictions and the shutting of clinics. They are seeing an increased need for services but also a scarcity of medications, often meaning higher prices:

“We are seeing more and more women calling the hotline seeking help to have an abortion but stating that they do not have the resources to purchase abortion pills.”
– Kenya

Reduced services, combined with the fear and stigma associated with accessing abortion care, has led many women to seek illegal, often unsafe services, which they may feel are more ‘confidential’. This can result in tragedy. CLACAI in Peru shared the stories of a woman in Lima who died from an underground abortion, earlier this month. A Venezuelan woman took her own life after fearing hospital staff would inform the police about the care she had received.

How are you working to ensure people in your community still have access to safe abortion care?

SAAF grantee partners are demonstrating incredible resilience and innovative thinking when it comes to ensuring the communities they work with can still access reproductive health care during the pandemic.

Organisations are:

  • increasing their online outreach,
  • expanding or establishing free hotlines,
  • and delivering radio shows to let women know that they can still access safe abortion, as well as how and where to do so.

“We have intensified our online campaigns…and increased the hotline operation hours including working past normal working hours and weekends.”
– Kenya

In Uganda, Tusitukirewamu Group found an innovative way to reach those trapped in their homes during lockdown. They used bikes to deliver essential supplies like emergency contraception door to door. Lorries are used to transport health care workers, who could not access public transport.

Has there been any silver lining when it comes to your work on safe abortion during the pandemic?

The past months have been extremely difficult for many and the impact will hit the poorest communities hardest. Despite the struggles of providing health care and support during this time, some have made positive changes.

One grantee partner in Venezuela has reported increased global solidarity for their work. In ramping up their online activity they are discovering more allies for abortion decriminalisation:

“Despite the fact that we are physically separated from the women we serve, and from friends in other organizations, we have sought out virtual spaces to meet and have received many beautiful messages of support, some of them unexpected. This month an activist from Mozambique wrote to us, we were very surprised.”

They also reported an advocacy victory. Their demand for reproductive health care not to be suspended during lockdown was accepted by the Ministry of Health.

Others saw their governments recognise abortion as an ‘essential service’ during the pandemic. In some cases, allowing for an expansion of the ways abortions can be provided. For example, in Colombia, where abortion via telemedicine is legally available, and in Moldova where SAAF partner RHTC is successfully providing remote abortion care.

What do you want to see next?

“We would like mifepristone (abortion medication) to be registered in the country, and we would like abortion to be decriminalised.”
– Venezuela

“Definitely legalization of abortion and openness to embracing self managed abortion as a valid and effective way of women accessing safe abortion and putting power in the hands of women!”
– Kenya

“To ensure better access to safe abortion the country has to legalize abortion, ensure health care providers demonstrate high performance through training, and better budget allocation for health care.”
– Uganda