WASHINGTON, D.C. May 8 (C-Fam) For years, abortion advocates have been working to increase access to do-it-yourself abortion drugs and information where the procedure is illegal and there are few trained abortionists. What has changed during the novel coronavirus pandemic is that governments are pushing the dangerous procedure in countries where the safeguards of medical professionals in clinics and hospitals has ordinarily been available to women.
In the U.K., the government revised its health policy last month to allow women to purchase abortion pills by mail up to ten weeks of pregnancy. The revision also removes the need for a woman to be referred for an abortion by a doctor—she needs only a phone consultation with a nurse or midwife to be sent the pills. She is then left to self-induce the abortion in her own home or other living situation.
Abortion advocates cite the reported increase in domestic violence as an argument for abortion to be regarded as “essential.” Yet pro-life organizations like the U.K.-based Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) see a dangerous downside to making mail-order abortion pills available in their country. “My fear is that many women will be pressured into phoning for an abortion by abusive partners,” says SPUC’s Antonia Tully. “We know that domestic violence is a huge indicator for abortion.”
France’s health ministry also loosened its restrictions on abortion pills, allowing them to be used at home up to nine weeks. Again, the justification for the policy change was to limit the need for trips to health facilities during the pandemic and resulting lockdown.
France and the U.K. are among the Western European nations that have effectively offered legal abortion on demand for decades, and have been among those most aggressively lobbying for an international right to abortion.
However, many of the countries that were first to legalize abortion were also careful to ensure that it was “safe” for women by embedding it within the medical establishment. In addition to gestational limits, abortions had to be provided by licensed physicians, performed in a clinical setting, and sometimes required prior approval by one or more doctors.
Since the rise of medical abortion—or abortion by pills—the abortion lobby has been pushing for the “demedicalization” of abortion. This includes ensuring that not only doctors, but nurses, midwives, and even pregnant women themselves, can legally perform abortions. Where abortion is illegal or restricted, it means ensuring they have access to the pills and instructions regardless of the law. Abortion advocates are quick to point out that all of these things are in line with recommendations by the World Health Organization.
For organizations pushing to make abortion pills widely available, especially in cases where it is against the law, the COVID-19 pandemic provides a rare opportunity. While abortion advocates and providers of black-market abortion pills are quick to insist that demedicalization “should have happened a long time ago,” they are hopeful that measures such as those taken by France and the U.K. will not be temporary.
Meanwhile, regardless of changes to laws and policies regarding self-induced abortion by pills, the companies that manufacture them have also been affected by the pandemic. Global distributors of abortion pills, such as DKT International, are seeking to “ring the alarm bells to the reproductive health community” about the potential stockouts and increased shipping costs for abortion pills, contraceptives, and other similar commodities.