The rapid progression of COVID-19 is having a ripple effect across every sector. Women’s health is no exception. Quarantine and shelter-in-place orders have upended the way that women traditionally access reproductive care. It might not seem like it in the middle of a national public health crisis, but women’s reproductive health and rights are at stake more than ever before.
Within the last two weeks, state legislators in Texas, Ohio, and Mississippi, among others, categorized abortions as “non-essential” medical procedures and tried to restrict abortion care during the COVID-19 outbreak. Organizations like Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have mobilized quickly to challenge the bans, but a federal appeals court recently ruled in favor of authorities in Texas, allowing them to continue carrying out their delay on abortions during the pandemic.
These attempts to suspend abortion care are just the tip of the iceberg. In the past couple of weeks since states started issuing shelter-in-place orders, the COVID-19 crisis has already had a profound impact on reproductive health care access, further putting women at a disadvantage during one of the most uncertain and volatile periods in this country’s history.
Getting birth control was already a huge challenge for the nearly 20 million low income American women living in contraceptive deserts. These are communities that lack access to a health clinic with a full range of contraceptive services. For women living in these vulnerable areas, this often means going to another state to access the reproductive health care they deserve or simply going without it and risking unplanned pregnancy. Going to a local pharmacy, much less another state, simply isn’t feasible as COVID-19 continues to spread within communities.
Even if women do live near a pharmacy, getting birth control refills is going to be a challenge—either because they’re sick or feel uncomfortable leaving home, or their local clinic is running on limited resources. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that certain contraceptives require a doctor’s visit. Women using the IUDs might also find it difficult to get these changed, especially since most clinics are canceling what they consider to be non-essential health services (though birth control should be considered an essential health service).
Right now, pregnancy prevention might not seem like a public health imperative—unintended pregnancies are at an all-time low in the U.S.—but we should be prepared for that to change during this crisis. With more than 30 states issuing shelter-at-home policies and millions of Americans working remotely, more women are now home with their partners. Consequently, the risk of unintended pregnancy will be significantly higher, especially with access to birth control becoming an even greater burden for many women. That could mean states will end up paying more in health care costs associated with unplanned pregnancies.
Even before COVID-19, family planning clinics were struggling to stay open after losing Title X funding in the last year. Many are small clinics that run on limited resources. They simply can’t take on the risk of staying open and potentially putting their staff in harm’s way. Those that remain open are cancelling non-essential health services because there’s such a huge need for healthcare providers to treat patients affected by the virus.
At the state level, there’s also been a major shift to recruit or re-assign healthcare providers. In California, for example, Governor Newsom launched the Health Corps, urging medical professionals—including those in retirement or in the process of getting a medical license—to join the state in preparing for an anticipated surge of COVID-19 cases. And San Francisco has already set aside 2,000 hotel rooms for sick individuals should they need it. A shift like this will undoubtedly leave a gap in healthcare providers who would typically be available for providing contraception, creating yet another barrier for women who rely on these much-needed services.
Now is the time to ease access to contraceptives and emergency contraception, not only because it helps to prevent unintended pregnancies, but also because it empowers women to have freedom of choice over their reproductive health. While the threat of COVID-19 lingers, telemedicine services—many of which prescribe and deliver birth control—could be a great bridge. In fact, studies have shown that hormonal contraception is perfectly safe to prescribe remotely, so there’s very low risk that a patient’s safety of care could be compromised.
At Pill Club, we serve hundreds of thousands of women across the country, regardless if their local clinic remains open or closed. Telemedicine doesn’t require women to see a doctor in-person to get a prescription and is a safe and trusted resource for women who have questions about their sexual health needs. That’s key to opening access to women’s reproductive health care and essential to ensuring women have a safety net to fall back on during the COVID-19 outbreak.