The COVID19 pandemic is hitting hard women and girls hard in Europe. Not only because they are often overrepresented in professions with a high risk of infection, or because they have been more exposed to gender-based violence. Some of the measures adopted to contain the spread of the coronavirus are undermining women and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Access to abortion care has been difficult for women in some European countries for years. Lockdowns and travel restrictions have worsened this situation, especially for women and girls who live in the few European states, like Malta, where abortion is illegal or severely restricted and who now cannot travel abroad to seek assistance and care. But even in states where abortion is legal, pre-existing obstacles such mandatory waiting periods and counselling, unnecessary hospitalisation, widespread refusals of care on grounds of conscience and the limited use of medical abortion pills, may hinder access to time-sensitive services.
Access to contraception has also been hindered. Barriers already in place before the pandemic, including the high cost of contraception in some countries, are even more difficult to overcome in these times of economic restrictions and limited freedom of movement.
To make things worse, a number of reports have shown harmful practices imposed on women in childbirth, medically unjustified separations of mothers and new-born babies, refusal of a birth companion’s presence and other failures to ensure adequate standards of care and respect for women’s rights, dignity and autonomy in childbirth. In Slovakia, for example, the Public Defender of Rights has expressed concern about such practices in the country, stressing that they were at variance with international human rights standards and the guidelines of the World Health Organization.
Regrettably, in Poland, the lower house of the Parliament recently failed to reject a bill that would further restrict access to abortion, keeping it instead for further examination. There have also been worrying attempts by ultra-conservative groups to use the pandemic as an opportunity to call for the rolling back of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.
There have also been worrying attempts by ultra-conservative groups to use the pandemic as an opportunity to call for the rolling back of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.
This situation clearly endangers the progress made on women’s rights in the past decades, and in particular since the Beijing Declaration was adopted 25 years ago. Full respect for women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights is an essential component of states’ obligations to guarantee women’s human rights and advance gender equality.
It is therefore encouraging to see that some states have taken special measures to facilitate access to abortion care and contraception during the lockdowns. For instance, in England, Scotland and Wales women can take medical abortion pills at home following a teleconsultation, while in Northern Ireland the authorities confirmed that abortion care could be performed locally further to a change in legislation that was set to enter into effect in March. In France and Italy, the health authorities have made it very clear that access to abortion is a health care service that must be ensured during the pandemic and cannot be deferred. The French authorities have extended the time limit for performing medical abortions at home from seven to nine weeks and made it temporarily possible to buy contraception pills in pharmacies using a previous prescription without having to renew it.
These are positive measures that should be extended. Instead of adopting legislation or policies that may roll-back women’s sexual and reproductive rights, all Council of Europe member states should ensure that their response to the COVID-19 upholds women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights. To this end, they should adopt a number of steps.
As a matter of urgency, states should remove all barriers preventing access to safe abortion care – such as medically unjustified mandatory waiting periods – and authorise telehealth consultations where appropriate as well as provision of emergency contraception over the counter without a prescription.
They should also ensure access to sexual and reproductive health care information, services and goods for all women without discrimination, and with specific attention for women at risk or victims of gender-based violence and other vulnerable groups of women.
Another important step is to consider access to abortion care, contraception, including emergency contraception, and maternal healthcare before, during and after childbirth, as essential health care services to be maintained during the pandemic.
Consider access to abortion care, contraception, including emergency contraception, and maternal healthcare before, during and after childbirth, as essential health care services to be maintained during the pandemic.
It is also crucial to ensure that refusals of care on grounds of conscience do not jeopardise women’s access to their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Lastly, there is the need to do more to address misinformation, gender stigma and norms that affect women’s and girls’ access to reliable, evidence-based information on their sexual and reproductive rights.
These measures were already needed before the pandemic, but acquire an even greater importance now that the COVID-19 pandemic is deepening gender inequalities.