Women’s Reproductive and Sexual Healthcare Is Experiencing a Worldwide Setback due to the Covid-19 pandemic
The Coronavirus pandemic left very few areas of life untouched – from education to sport to transport – but perhaps no area more so than that of healthcare.
It is true that women’s reproductive and sexual healthcare has long lagged behind other areas. It is this specific area of women’s health that has fallen particular victim to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, with many services and products being deemed non-essential. Now that times are returning to ‘normal’, the impact of reduced access to reproductive and sexual healthcare for women and girls is being seen and felt globally.
While many think of sexual and reproductive healthcare as a service you use as and when you need it, it also includes public education. Most students in developed countries receive comprehensive sex education in schools, schools that closed during the pandemic. An estimated 1.54 billion young people were out of school throughout the pandemic, a large amount of whom will have missed out on some of the most important health education that schools provide. These are the students who are more susceptible to the risks of unsafe sexual activity if not educated on the potential impacts it can have. In attempts to combat this, Plan International UK are using a range of innovative methods, including TV content, mobile apps, songs, and phone hotlines, to reach as many children as possible. So, whilst in some areas of the world students are returning to schools, plans such as these are helping to strengthen the provision of sex education to all students, no matter their pandemic status.
Contraception & STI testing
One of the most utilised services within women’s sexual healthcare is that of contraception and STI testing. Some of these key services were largely halted in the UK, especially during national lockdowns, while others continued but at limited capacity. This issue was exacerbated by the deployment of specialist sexual and reproductive health staff to other areas of the NHS. Commercially, there have been sharp increases in sales of contraception, including condoms and oral contraceptives, which is suspected to be due to reduced access to freely provided contraceptives and fewer people using NHS prescription services during this time. There was also great uncertainty around the legitimacy of accessing contraceptives and testing, with many women self-censoring their needs, alongside the exacerbation of existing access barriers and reduced social support.
Access to safe abortions also became considerably harder for women worldwide. There has been concern that more conservative governments used the crisis to setback sexual and reproductive health rights, such as access to safe abortions, for example, the attempts made by 11 US states to restrict abortion access. Such limitations are likely to lead to an increase in unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions. However, the proportion of women seeking an abortion due to social factors increased significantly during the pandemic. This was seen in countries including China, Sweden, and Iran and has been linked to increased stress due to fear of economic instability and fear for pregnancy outcomes. Overall, access to abortions, an already fraught service in much of the world, only became more so during this time.
One major positive resulting from the pandemic was the UK Government’s decision to allow the temporary approval for women and girls to take the medication for early medical abortions (EMA) from their own homes without the need for in-person consultation. The consensus from regulatory bodies and domestic violence charities has been that home use has improved abortion care, from reducing waiting times to improved patient experiences. Many who have used the process, alongside those who have long petitioned for reform to abortion care, are calling for the introduction of at-home abortions to continue post-pandemic and to further develop the initiative. Consultation has been ongoing since late 2020 on the future of the at-home EMAs and is likely to continue for some time yet.
One of the more discussed areas during the pandemic was maternity care. Many women came forward with horrifying stories of facing check-ups, procedures, and even childbirth on their own. Routine antenatal services were cut back, with most in-person appointments cancelled or replaced by online appointments, leaving many expectant mothers feeling rightfully anxious. Frequently changing and unclear guidelines contributed greatly to uncertainty regarding physical distancing requirements in antenatal and childbirth care in hospitals across the UK. Pregnant women entering maternity wards were fraught with anxiety due to stories of thousands of women’s birth plans being thrown out of the window. Therefore, an increase in stressful and traumatic births is likely to be a result of the pandemic.
The effects of Covid-19 on women’s sexual and reproductive health can be seen worldwide. Many governments have failed to recognise the importance of sexual health education and sexual health service providers. As a result, a lack of knowledge and anxiety regarding these services has increased and many women were forced to either receive unsatisfactory treatment or undergo no treatment at all. Even in the best of times, this issue disproportionately affects women and girls. However, following the severe impact of the pandemic, the issue has been further exacerbated.
 Faculty of Sexual & Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH). FSRH COVID-19 SRH service survey: interim results 07 May 2020. Available: https://www.fsrh.org/documents/covid-19-fsrh-survey-interim-results-07-may-2020/.
I'm a second year Law student at UEA in Norwich. I currently work as a Media Ambassador for my university and also spend a lot of time working as a committee member for the UEA Feminist Book Club. I have keen interests in Criminal Law as well as Public Law, especially after completing some work experience with my local public law firm. I am super excited to join the Fem Legal team, both to be able to write about such important topics but also to learn from the team and our readers. In my spare time I love to read and write about almost anything, as well as watching anything Marvel or Formula 1 related!