This year marks six decades since the first oral contraceptive pill was introduced. Oral contraceptives – and other modern, reliable family planning supplies – have since been globally recognized as essential medicines. Family planning supplies not only empower women and girls to take ownership of their health and futures – but they also save lives by reducing the risk of maternal death.
Today, there is a consensus among health professionals and policymakers that access to voluntary family planning is a public health and human rights imperative.
Yet access to contraceptives is constantly undermined by a variety of factors, including pervasive myths and stigma, as well as structural issues such as supply chain problems and underresourced health systems.
And today, these factors include the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Below are three crucial things everyone needs to know about contraceptives and COVID-19.
1. Amid the pandemic, access to contraceptives is falling.
The pandemic is straining public health systems globally, interrupting and delaying many kinds of critical health care. A recent survey by the World Health Organization found that family planning and contraception are among the most frequently disrupted health services, with 7 in 10 countries experiencing disruptions.
“The pandemic is deepening inequalities, and millions more women and girls now risk losing the ability to plan their families and protect their bodies and their health,” said UNFPA’s Executive Director, Dr. Natalia Kanem, at the outset of the pandemic.
UNFPA – the world’s largest provider of donated contraceptive supplies – is working to ensure the flow of family planning supplies to health systems and remote and at-risk communities.
In Nepal, for instance, UNFPA is supporting family planning counselling and contraceptive supplies to people in quarantine centres. “The women were worried about getting pregnant,” described Kabita Bhandari, a family planning counsellor.
In Eswatini, UNFPA is supporting a mobile messaging system that provides information about accessing contraceptives. And in Uganda, UNFPA is supporting a programme that allows users to have family planning supplies delivered to their homes. UNFPA is also providing personal protective equipment to family planning providers around the world.
Still, much more must be done to ensure women can access the contraceptive supplies of their choice.
2. Interruptions in family planning will be catastrophic for women.
At the start of the pandemic, UNFPA, Avenir Health, Johns Hopkins University and Victoria University modelled the potential impact of the pandemic on family planning services.
They found that six months of severe health system disruptions in 114 low- and middle-income countries could lead to 47 million women unable to use contraceptives, leading to 7 million unplanned pregnancies.
Unplanned pregnancies, of course, have serious consequences for women and girls’ educations and livelihoods.
But they also come with the risk of pregnancy-related complications and even mortality at a time when many countries’ health systems are overburdened. Women in countries around the world are reporting barriers to receiving antenatal care and safe delivery services.
Horrifically, sexual and gender-based violence are also on the rise, which can increase the risk of unintended pregnancy for women and girls. The full toll of pandemic-related unplanned pregnancies is unknowable, but it will include lost lives, lost health and lost dreams for the future.
3. You have a right to plan your family. The pandemic does not change that.
Interruptions to family planning are not simply a public health concern. They are a human rights concern.
In 1968, at the International Conference on Human Rights, leaders from around the world agreed that “parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children.”
This agreement, known as the Teheran Proclamation, was a game-changer. It recognized that women and girls have the right to avoid the exhaustion, depletion and dangers of too many pregnancies, too close together. It recognized that men and women alike have the right to choose if, when and how often to become parents.
Emergencies do not diminish the value or necessity of this human right.
Policymakers, health systems, governments and humanity have a collective obligation to uphold this right for all people, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic when barriers have increased tremendously.
“Women’s reproductive health and rights must be safeguarded at all costs,” said Dr. Kanem. “The services must continue; the supplies must be delivered; and the vulnerable must be protected and supported.”