Women face 'catastrophic' risks as thousands of sexual health clinics close

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than 5,600 sexual health clinics have shut due to the new coronavirus, risking more deaths from unsafe abortions and denying women access to HIV tests and drugs, the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) said on Thursday.

The world’s largest sexual and reproductive health charity said COVID-19 lockdowns, social distancing and staff shortages had closed about one in seven of its members’ clinics, which also offer gender-based violence support and abortion care.

“You will see women unable to access contraception, that’s going to lead to unplanned pregnancies, that potentially will lead to reduced access to safe and legal abortion,” said an IPPF spokesman who declined to be named.

“That could well lead to increases in unsafe abortion ... it leads to women dying or being maimed,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Sexual health organisations and women’s rights groups have called on European authorities to recognize access to abortion as a human right that must be protected during the pandemic, amid fears of a surge in unwanted pregnancies.

Domestic abuse helplines have seen an uptick in calls since lockdowns began, as increasing social and economic strains and restrictions on movement have left many women at home with abusive partners, raising the risk of unwanted pregnancies.

IPPF said Pakistan, El Salvador, Zambia, Sudan, Colombia and Germany were among the countries reporting more than 100 closures of clinics and community-based providers that serve poor women in hard-to-reach locations.

Many IPPF members also said they were facing shortages of contraceptives and HIV-related medicines, in the largest global survey to date on how sexual healthcare providers have been hit by COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

IPPF’s director general Alvaro Bermejo said governments must change their policies to make it easier for women to access care and obtain medication virtually.

“Access to telemedicine and the ability to take medicines in their own homes, such as medical abortion medication, already have a strong evidence base and should become standard,” he said in a statement.

“If these losses can’t be course corrected the consequences for women and girls will be catastrophic; resulting in loss of health, autonomy and life.”

Reporting by Amber Milne; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit