European Governments Urged To Ensure And Safeguard Access To Abortion

On April 8th, 100 NGOs signed a joint statement urging European governments to “ensure safe and timely access to abortion care during the COVID-19 pandemic.” The statement highlighted the “significant restrictions” women and girls face in safely accessing reproductive health services during the pandemic, including limitations on travel abroad for women living in countries where abortion is illegal or heavily restricted, as well as reduced or completely halted reproductive services elsewhere.

The NGOs, which included Amnesty International, underlined how these restrictions “disproportionately impact individuals belonging to marginalized groups,” such as women living in poverty, women with disabilities, Roma women, undocumented migrant women, and women who are survivors of domestic and sexual violence.  Leah Hoctor, Regional Director for Europe’s Center for Reproductive Rights, called on European governments to “move swiftly to eradicate all medically unnecessary requirements that hamper access to abortion care and should authorize women to access early medical abortion from their homes.”

Abortion is currently illegal or severely restricted in six European countries; Andorra, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, Poland and San Marino. In Poland, where abortion is illegal except in cases of rape, when the woman’s life or any form of health is in jeopardy, or if the foetus is irreparably damaged, the vast majority of abortions take place illegally. Up to 200,000 Polish women are estimated to terminate pregnancies every year. Among these, 10-15% go abroad. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has made travel abroad almost impossible, these women are left with very few options. Illegal abortion at home very often leads to complications which endanger women’s heath significantly.

Women in countries where abortion is legal still face huge barriers in accessing services during the pandemic. In the U.K., for example, a legal abortion must be administered by a registered medical doctor or specialist nurse; a woman cannot take both her abortion pills in her own home. Two doctors must also confirm that the woman meets the criteria laid out in the 1967 Abortion Act, and sign an abortion form. These procedures make access to abortion care not only limited during the pandemic, but create unnecessary risks of exposure to COVID-19 for these women and their healthcare providers. The U.K.’s Department of Health and Social Care confirmed last week that for these reasons it will allow women in England temporarily to manage medical abortions during the COVID-19 lockdown, i.e. take both medications at home. The rest of the U.K. and Europe should follow suit.

Worldwide, many politicians are using the coronavirus pandemic to strip women of their reproductive rights.  In the United States, for example, Texas and Ohio providers are now to stop performing abortion unless the pregnancy endangers a women’s life. Yet misoprostol, one of the active drugs for medication abortion, is included in the WHO’s Model List of Essential Medicines and thus should be registered as an essential medicine by all governments. To increase access to safe abortion care while reducing the spread of COVID-19, medication for abortion should be made widely available. In the midst of this health crisis, women’s reproductive health must not be ignored.

Anna Myrmus