Three things you need to know about contraceptives and COVID-19

Contraceptive supplies are arranged against a yellow and pink background.
Voluntary access to contraceptives is a public health and human rights imperative, even during COVID-19. Image from Unsplash/RHSupplies

UNITED NATIONS, New York – Six decades ago, 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 empower women and girls to take ownership of their health and futures. Further, they save lives by reducing the risk of maternal death.

Today, there is consensus among health professionals and policymakers that access to voluntary family planning is crucial. It is a public health and human rights imperative.

Many factors undermine access to contraceptives. Pervasive myths and stigma, supply chain problems, and underresourced health systems all prevent women from receiving care.

And today, these factors include the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Below are three crucial things everyone needs to know about contraceptives and COVID-19.

A photo shows a close-up of a pack of oral contraceptive pills on a pink and blue background.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the oral contraceptive pill. Today, access to family planning services is at risk. Image from Unsplash/RHSupplies

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. 7 in 10 countries around the world 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 is the world’s largest provider of donated contraceptive supplies. The agency works to ensure that remote and at-risk health systems have the supplies they need to provide care.

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 provide women with access to their preferred contraceptive supplies.

A photo shows a close up of an intrauterine device.
Interruptions in family planning will result in lost lives, lost health and lost dreams. Image from Unsplash/RHSupplies

2. Interruptions in family planning will be catastrophic for women.

At the start of the pandemic, UNFPA and partners modelled the potential impact of the pandemic on family planning services.

They found that six months of severe health system disruptions could leave 47 million women without access to contraceptives. 7 million of these women will experience 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 death. The strain on health systems compounds these problems.  Women in countries around the world are reporting barriers to receiving antenatal care and safe delivery services.

Horrifically, rates of sexual and gender-based violence are rising. This increases 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 and lost dreams.

A photo shows a close up of condoms against a blue and yellow background.
The pandemic does not diminsh the human right to plan one’s family. Image from Unsplash/RHSupplies

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. 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.

We all have an obligation to secure this right for all people. This is true especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic when barriers to contraceptives have increased tremendously.

“Women’s reproductive health and rights must be safeguarded at all costs,” said Dr. Kanem. “The services must continue; we must deliver supplies; and we must protect and support the vulnerable.”

Dana Kirkegaard
Your support helps UNFPA care for women and girls when they need it most.

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