Covid-19 is worsening access to abortion in Italy and Europe

Covid-19 is worsening access to abortion in Italy and Europe

Across Europe, and in Italy in particular, access to legal abortion for women is being hindered by the new anti-Covid-19 restrictive measures and government inaction, which are aggravating structural problems that existed before the pandemic

(photo: Getty Images) Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, women across Europe have been facing new obstacles to accessing abortion services, on top of others already existing before of this health crisis. In the last month, the emblematic case of Poland has caused a lot of hype in the international media, where a new court sentence (now suspended) risks introducing an almost total ban on abortion in the strongly Catholic country. But Poland isn't the only European state that is making life difficult for women: Abortion helplines across Europe have reported increased demand for their services, as new anti-Covid-19 restrictions add to obstacles. that many women face normally to access abortion.

Numerous NGOs operating in the sector have reported to Reuters news agency the difficulties encountered by women in obtaining medical appointments in public health systems, overwhelmed by coronavirus infections, and to escape violent and controlling partners, due to of lockdowns. In countries where abortion is highly restricted or even prohibited - such as Poland and Malta - women have found themselves unable to travel abroad to terminate unwanted pregnancies, as the pandemic has often canceled flights and closed borders. Even sending abortion pills by post - a common practice for organizations that help women in places where anti-abortion restrictions are very limiting - has become difficult, as packages have taken weeks to deliver in recent months.

Marie Stopes International, a nonprofit organization that provides contraception and abortion services, has estimated that approximately 2.7 million more unsafe abortions will occur worldwide due to the difficulties of the health service. "The pandemic has had an impact on reproductive health as a whole because it is not considered a priority," Teresa Bombas, one of Portugal's most famous midwives, told Reuters.

On the international scene, even Italy is no less: according to a research by Human Rights Watch in July 2020, "the inertia of the government has left women and girls facing avoidable obstacles in accessing abortion in Italy during the Covid-19 pandemic, putting their health and their lives at risk ”. A research that the human rights NGO presented to the Italian Ministry of Health itself through a letter, to which it received no comment in response.

The difficulties of Italian women on abortion

Law 194 of 1978 allows abortion for any reason in the first 90 days of pregnancy. Only three other states in Europe have a shorter legal deadline for abortion on demand. Many women may not realize (or have confirmation) that they are pregnant until the end of the first trimester, in the twelfth week.

However, Law 194 contains requirements that Human Rights Watch undoubtedly defines as "burdensome" to complete the procedure within the required time frame, including a seven-day wait and mandatory advice "to help [ the woman] to remove the factors that would lead to the termination of pregnancy ". The website of the Ministry of Health, on the other hand, indicates that "the primary objective of the law [194, ed] is the social protection of motherhood and the prevention of abortion". Furthermore, again by law 194, doctors have the possibility of refusing to practice Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy (IVG) on the basis of "conscientious objection", unless the woman's life is in "imminent danger ".

Although the IVG is one of the guaranteed and free practices of reproductive health of Italian women, therefore, in 2018 69% of gynecologists and 46% of anesthetists nationwide declared themselves objectors. In a quarter of the national territory, peaks of up to 80% and 60%, respectively, were reached. Law 194 would oblige the authorities to enforce the fulfillment of legal requests for abortion (including through the relocation of staff, if necessary), specifying that health professionals cannot deny pre- or post-abortion care. Yet, according to Human Rights Watch, these measures are not supported or enforced.

The obstacles caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have also been added in recent months to this picture, which is in itself difficult for women. Finding the necessary medical services within the time allowed by law 194 has become further complex: often, women and girls find themselves having to make visits to multiple facilities, in Italy or abroad - with all the travel bans and restrictions provided for counter the pandemic. Over the past year, some facilities in Italy have suspended health services for abortion or have reassigned gynecological staff to the departments dedicated to Covid-19. Hospitals and clinics have often failed to provide patients with the information they need about abortion services available during the pandemic.

Furthermore, unlike other European governments (such as the British one), the Italian authorities have not adopted measures to facilitate access to pharmacological abortion, a method judged to be safer and more effective than surgery even by the Organization World Health Organization (WHO). Pharmacological abortion in Italy is legal only up to the seventh week of pregnancy - when some women may not yet know they are pregnant - and national guidelines require it to be administered during a three-day hospitalization; while according to the WHO, on the contrary, it is a procedure that could be easily managed by women at home up to the twelfth week of pregnancy.

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