We have a problem. The media has already stoked fear that the coronavirus lockdown could undo decades’ worth of progress in the advancement of women’s rights. When we look at the issues the lockdown has created for reproductive rights, we can see that that may already be happening.
Sales of the morning after pill dropped by 50% from March to April and NHS prescriptions of the pill fell by 20%. Perhaps this could be explained by a drop in demand because, rather obviously, sex is off the table unless you live with your partner. However, given that the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) reported a 15% increase in abortion consultations since April, the explanation is more likely to be that lockdown has become yet another obstacle for accessing emergency contraception.
There are various reasons for this. Firstly, the ‘stay at home’ message that the Government hammered into our heads during the initial phase of the lockdown – it worked well, but perhaps a bit too well. Pharmacies have been open throughout the crisis but it would be plausible that people have become too apprehensive to leave their homes.
One in ten women aged between 14 and 21 have reported difficulties accessing contraception
Contraception services have also been drastically cut, with 77% of GPs and 64% of specialist services ending or limiting contraceptive care services. Staff who would usually manage these, especially in hospitals, have been deployed to other parts of hospitals to help tackle coronavirus. Concerns about the spread of COVID-19 have also caused practitioners to cancel coil or implant fittings. Furthermore, a consultation is legally required to obtain the morning-after pill and they have been more difficult to conduct with social distancing measures.
Problems with accessing the morning after pill are having an adverse effect. According to a survey from Plan International UK, one in ten women aged between 14 and 21 have reported difficulties accessing contraception. 26% blamed this on the place where they access contraception being closed, while 25% said that they weren’t sure if it was an essential enough reason to leave the house. These are figures for only one age group, but they highlight problems many other women may have had that meant more of them have needed the morning-after pill.
The pandemic is a stressful enough situation even without an unplanned pregnancy
There are concerns that the accessibility issues created by lockdown will result in more unplanned pregnancies. The pandemic is a stressful enough situation even without an unplanned pregnancy to deal with, and potentially also the added stress of having an abortion. It also becomes difficult to handle for those who have been furloughed or made redundant and for whom an unplanned pregnancy wouldn’t be financially viable.
However, these difficulties could suggest that it is the time to change the laws to make the morning after pill more accessible. The law has already temporarily changed to allow more women to receive medical abortion pills through the post rather than going to a clinic. Change is more than possible and even more vital in order to prevent a situation where it is easier to access an abortion than a means to prevent it, although making it easier to have an abortion is still something to be welcomed.
Now is the perfect time for these suggestions to be implemented
The president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), Dr Ed Morris, has commented that “removing barriers to this treatment is now more important than ever with pressures on the health service due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.”
Both the BPAS and RCOG have called for the consultation needed in order to access emergency contraception to be scrapped, which would bring the UK in line with other countries in Europe and also the US. It would be a timely move, allowing women to get hold of the morning after pill without having to answer invasive questions. They also believe emergency contraception should be sold in supermarkets to help improve access.
Now is the perfect time for these suggestions to be implemented. We currently live in a situation where women receive subliminal signals that they aren’t trusted with emergency contraception. A pandemic shouldn’t be a reason for women to lose authority over what happens to their bodies.