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Rise In Unsafe Abortions In India Indicates How Coronavirus Pandemic Has Severely Impacted Female Reproductive Health Services

July 14, 2020 | by Jinal Bhatt

People are calling coronavirus the equaliser, because it can affect anyone, irrespective of their age, gender, economic status, health status and so on. I beg to disagree with that epithet. The virus in itself may be doing a stellar job of picking no favourites, but the fallout from the pandemic is hitting some sections of the society worse than the others. None more so than women. With the threat of COVID-19 looming over their heads, financial crisis hitting hard, and an absolute breakdown of female reproductive health services, women are bearing a staggering brunt of this pandemic. No wonder, in India, the rate of unsafe abortions is surging rapidly.

Female reproductive health: A deadly taboo made worse by the coronavirus pandemic

When the first lockdown was announced in India, in March, we barely had time to register the impact it would have on our lives. Did we think it would last this long? Did we have everything we thought we’d need over the course of the lockdown? We brought groceries to keep us fed, and sanitary supplies to keep us safe, even board games and books to keep us entertained. But not many gave much thought to things like contraception. After all, sexual and reproductive health has always been such a taboo subject; a crisis is the perfect way to sweep any conversation about it under the rug.

Representational Image / Wikimedia Commons

With coronavirus taking centre-stage, we’ve all unconsciously neglected the reality that other illnesses and diseases do still exist. Other types of healthcare do need our attention. Can’t blame them, this is the first pandemic for most. As The Guardian reports, the strain on the healthcare system in India diverted a major chunk of family healthcare resources, both personnel and infrastructure, to treating COVID patients. Add to that the limited public transport facilities, financial strain on family incomes, and restricted movement unless health emergencies. The result? Access to clinics, contraception, safe abortion and reproductive health medication was highly reduced for women who needed them.

We’re looking at 7 million unplanned pregnancies globally!

In his World Population Day 2020 speech on July 11, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres quoted the estimated projections of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which indicate some startling statistics. The global pandemic lockdown could force 12 million girls into marriage this year. What’s more,  if the lockdown measures continue in this manner for six months, the major disruptions in health services could result in 47 million women in low- and middle-income countries being unable to access modern contraceptives. This, in turn, could result in 7 million unplanned pregnancies.

Also Read: UN Secretary-General Says Disruptions In Healthcare Services Could Lead To 7 Million Unplanned Pregnancies. This Should Worry All Of Us

What percentage of these statistics would come from India is hard to say but considering we’re already a country deprived of proper reproductive healthcare facilities, this should worry us. Especially in the rural areas, where this access is further limited, either due to the remoteness of the location, lack of awareness or the shame/embarrassment felt by women. Most of them aren’t likely to reveal abortion as a reason for their venturing out of their homes during a lockdown to the cops. Perhaps, even when they do, it might not be considered a health emergency by others.

A surge in unsafe abortions in India

FI 7 Million Unplanned Pregnancies Due To Lockdown

As per the abortion law in India, terminating a pregnancy within the first 20 weeks is legal. This can be extended to 24 weeks with the court’s permission in cases of rape, incest or the girl being a minor. In the first seven weeks, abortion pills can be taken. However, after that, surgical abortion is considered a safer practice.

The lockdown may have prompted women to wait until everything opens to visit a doctor. But the uncertainty and prolonging of the restrictions could’ve compelled them to act before it’s too late. With no access to proper guidance, these women might’ve been forced to opt for unsafe medical procedures from unqualified doctors or self-medicate to end their pregnancies. According to the same Guardian report, some 60% of cases at Parivar Seva Sanstha’s clinics are now complications arising from unsafe or botched abortion procedures. 

Let’s also not forget that the persistent COVID-19 threat has introduced additional risk in undergoing invasive medical procedures. This means the extra level of precautions that will now have to followed and the expenses they will incur (cost of PPE kits, gloves, sanitation, etc.) will raise the cost of an abortion. This might further drive women into the waiting arms of unsafe medical health procedures.

We need to stop ignoring women’s reproductive health

Like most non-emergency services, abortion and family health clinics were also shut down during the lockdown, and it took special appeal to make it a part of desirable essential services that ought to be made available. And yet, we’re faced with the repercussions of inaccessibility even now, with no improvement in sight unless cohesive action is taken to make people aware that reproductive health services need to be prioritised.

Also Read: As A Woman, I’ll Always Choose Working From Office Over Work From Home. Here’s Why.

Jinal Bhatt

Sharp-tongued feminist. Proud nerd. Opinions with on-point pop-culture references about films, books, your toxic BF, the patriarchy, and the Oxford comma.

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