Amidst the pandemic and lockdown in most countries, accessing safe abortion services and related sexual and reproductive health services has become extremely difficult for women and girls. These are unprecedented times, the world is facing the biggest global crises, the pandemic has unravelled stark differences and inequalities within our societies and those hit hardest are the most marginalised.
It is not surprising that we are seeing a severe pushback, increasing threats and disruption of sexual and reproductive health services that are considered “nonessential” including access to safe abortion. The world’s women, most of whom have inadequate access to reproductive health, often pay a higher price and bear a heavier burden when pandemics occur; at the same time, policy makers and cultural leaders are slow to respond. The striking examples of HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and Zika must be heeded and used as the basis for strong and appropriate strategies that ensure women’s sexual and reproductive health, even, and especially, in times of widespread health crisis.
Access to abortion is a human right and a pandemic does not change that, denying access to safe abortion services and coercing women and girls into unwanted pregnancy is brutal and violates their human rights.
“The UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women in Law and Practice has noted that denial of essential women’s health services, including abortion, will drive service provision underground into the hands of unqualified practitioners … Persistently high maternal mortality rates often reflect a lack of investment in and under-prioritisation of services required only by women. For hundreds of thousands of women across the globe, like the coronavirus pandemic itself, access to abortion can be quite literally a matter of life or death.”
UK approved home use of medical abortion pills, saying “the move will be made on a temporary basis, limited for two years or until the coronavirus crisis is over, and applies for medical abortions up to the tenth week of pregnancy. Women will be sent the two pills required for an early termination in the post following a telephone or e-consultation with a doctor.” While this is a welcomed move, the same may not be possible for South Asian countries where access for rural women remains a huge problem. How do we then ensure that access to abortion as an essential service is not overlooked by the already overburdened health systems of third world countries?
There are a lot of on-going discussions on a need for gender analysis of a pandemic and how women and girls will be the worst hit in this situation. While gender is important, equally important are class, caste, race, ethnicity, geopolitics and other structural conditions that need to be taken into account. An intersectional analysis is required in our policy solutions and demands that take cognisance of the multiple intersecting identities and situated in lived realities of women. An intersectional analysis helps us to understand how the virus disproportionately impacts specific groups of people, who, because of their intersecting identities, face unique forms of burden.
We are as empowered as the most vulnerable among us. We urgently require an intersectional approach to public health policy and decision-making. Pandemics can provide an opportunity to demand systemic changes and shape discourses. UK’s example shows that things can be done differently. As activists and advocates we can seize this opportunity to fight for recognising abortion as a human right, demand developing a health system that is inclusive, that recognises the needs of those marginalised and integrates the full spectrum of SRHR in the Universal Health Coverage that includes access to safe abortion services.
by Garima Shrivastava