Written by Antonella Cariello
International Women’s Day is an important moment to stop and think about all the achievements that have been reached in the path toward women’s rights and gender equality. However, this day also serves to remind us of the fragility of those achievements and freedoms. If we look back over the past year, it quickly becomes apparent that the coronavirus pandemic has changed our lives – in many cases drastically; such change has dominated political discourse for months. However, while politicians and experts have devoted themselves to finding the best solutions to this pandemic, women’s rights have arguably been neglected. In particular, one of the rights which has been most challenged during those months has been the right to seek a safe abortion.
Indeed, the pandemic has problematically compromised women’s access to contraception and abortion. A joint report by European Parliament Forum for Sexual & Reproductive Rights (EPF) and the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network (IPPF EN) underlines that:
“As the COVID-19 pandemic is spreading around the globe, women’s safe access to abortion has become one of many healthcare services thrown into jeopardy. Many women and girls in Europe are facing a range of difficulties accessing abortion care safely during the pandemic”
The lockdowns and measures aiming to stop the spread of the virus have constituted additional barriers to women seeking an abortion. In many cases, women have been asked to stay at home because their will to seek abortion was not considered a priority. For instance, when in Lithuania some healthcare institutions were refusing to provide pregnancy termination service, the Minister of Health said that “this could be an occasion for families or women to consult once more with doctors, psychologists and use the moment to reconsider their decision, decide not to terminate pregnancy.” In many European countries during the lockdowns, health systems and practitioners decided to stop providing non-essential services; abortion was considered as one of those.
This has also been the case in some regions of Germany and Italy, where the difficulty to get an abortion has been exacerbated by the incredibly low rate of the doctors providing abortion. In Italy, for instance, a statistic shows that 7 out of 10 practitioners are “conscientious objectors”. Therefore, in those countries, many clinics have chosen to focus only on necessary operations and have refused to manage abortions. The same has happened in Hungary, where surgical abortions were ceased in the public sector, due to a ban on non-life saving procedures.
All these obstacles have made it impossible to seek abortion for thousands of women. Likewise, governments have been complicit in this assault on women’s health rights. One of the sadly famous instances has been the case of Poland. Throughout 2020, the Polish government worked to approve a near-total ban on abortion; this became effective in January 2021. With this new regulation, abortion can be sought only in cases of rape or incest, or when the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. This law has followed a ruling by the Constitution Court who found the 1993 law allowing abortion in cases of severe and irreversible fetal abnormalities to be unconstitutional. According to BBC, in 2019, 98% of the abortions in the country were carried out on those grounds, therefore this means that the new law banned the majority of pregnancy terminations.
Health and rights at stake
Abortion should be seen as an essential component of women’s sexual and reproductive care, not as a questionable or negotiable privilege. Research has demonstrated that the lack of access to safe abortion care does not cause a drop in abortion rates, but instead causes substantial maternal morbidity and mortality. To guarantee access to a safe abortion is even more urgent during the Covid-19 crisis. Indeed, studies and researchers have stressed how the demand for abortion is likely to increase due to pandemic, economic instability, domestic violence or limited access to contraception.
Moreover, abortion is not a procedure that can be easily postponed, and it can cause an enormous psychological and physical distress. The Covid-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented event and of course, has limited our freedoms and rights. Let’s think about the freedom of movement: we have been obliged to stay at home and stop travelling for many months. This was not easy to accept, but just try to think about what the closing of borders means for a woman who cannot have an abortion in her country and need to move to another country to do so?
It is unacceptable that European women are denied the basic right of bodily autonomy and the chance to make informed decisions about their life in their own countries. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that we cannot overlook the fragility of women’s rights, and we need a common European answer. We need to claim basic standards for the recognition of health and reproductive rights of all European citizens.
This is just one disconcerting example of how easily women’s bodies and choices are manipulated and denied. The health crisis caused by the pandemic has been used as a scapegoat for societal regression: abortion has been dismissed as a mere “caprice” for women. On International Women’s Day, we need to recall the instability of the achievements we are eager to celebrate. But also, we must acknowledge the strength and courage of thousands of people who will not stand back. For many, abortion is not and cannot be an easy subject. It is a complicated and private matter, interconnected with the intimate wellbeing and health of a person. This pandemic should teach us the importance of care, mutual understanding, and empathy, and it should not be an excuse to delete progress and postpone basic human rights.