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With Lockdowns Cutting Off Access, Global Charity Estimates 1.5 Million Women Will Have Unsafe Abortions Amid Pandemic

"Women's needs do not suddenly stop or diminish during an emergency—they become greater."

A woman with a child in a sling waits to board a transit bus to a Manipur bound special train, at Tau Devi Lal stadium, on May 25, 2020 in Gurugram, India. (Photo: Yogendra Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

An international reproductive rights charity warned on Wednesday that it expects 1.5 million women around the world to have unsafe abortions as a result of the coronavirus pandemic's likely impact on access to reproductive healthcare. 

In its report, titled Resilience, Adaptation, and Action, (pdf) Marie Stopes International (MSI) reported that between January and June 2020, its programs have served 1.9 million fewer women than usual. The London-based organization provides contraceptive care, abortion care, and other sexual and reproductive healthcare services to women in 37 countries around the world.  

By surveying 1,000 women in the U.K., South Africa, and India, MSI found that restricted movement due to national lockdowns, disruptions in supply chains, the overwhelming of healthcare systems by the pandemic, and a lack of information about reproductive services has led women around the world to forgo the care they need.

The organization has been able to use creative solutions in some countries to provide necessary care. Travel restrictions in Madagascar and Uganda left women unable to access maternity hospitals, abortion care, and contraceptive services, leading MSI workers to fight for government permits in order to provide transportation and partner with the U.N. Population Fund in order to deliver products to women. 

But the report offers "evidence of the devastating disruption" around the world to reproductive healthcare for women, tweeted Sarah Newey, global health security reporter for The Telegraph.

In India, the strict nationwide lockdown was put in place so abruptly to curb the spread of Covid-19 that 1.3 million fewer women were served by MSI's programs than expected in the first half of the year. 

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"Due to this drop in services, it is estimated that there will be an additional one million unsafe abortions, an additional 650,000 unintended pregnancies, and 2,600 maternal deaths, due to lack of access to MSI's India services alone," the report reads. 

Around the world, MSI expects 900,000 additional unintended pregnancies and 3,100 additional maternal deaths as a result of the pandemic.

If services suffer in Latin America, Asia, and throughout Africa as they have in the countries MSI examined, the group's director of global evidence, Kathryn Church, told the Associated Press, those numbers "will likely be greatly amplified."

"Women's needs do not suddenly stop or diminish during an emergency—they become greater. And as a doctor I have seen only too often the drastic action that women and girls take when they are unable to access contraception and safe abortion," a physician identified as Dr. Rashmi, who works at one of MSI's two programs in India, said in the report. "This pandemic has strained healthcare services all over the world, but sexual and reproductive healthcare was already so underprioritized that once again women are bearing the brunt of this global calamity."

The report details how isolation has left women around the world uniformed about the services they are legally able to access in their countries. In the U.K., just 21% of women surveyed said they believed abortion care was accessible to them during the pandemic. Forty-three percent of women in South Africa and 44% of women in India believed the service was available. 

Nearly a third of women in India and 26% of women in South Africa lost access to contraceptive care, as fear of Covid-19 infection kept them from accessing the service. A third of women in India also reported that they faced a wait time of one to two weeks when making an appointment for an abortion. 

"We cannot allow this pandemic to roll back decades of progress in affirming reproductive justice for people across the globe," tweeted Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) after the report was released. 

MSI noted that its report provides only "a snapshot of the current crisis" and that "in many countries the worst effects of Covid-19 are yet to come."

"We know that there are cost effective and simple solutions that when implemented can save lives and maintain access," the group said. "We therefore continue to urge governments, donors, and the global community to work together to prioritize access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services in their Covid-19 response to ensure women have timely access to essential services when needed most."

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