Advocates sound alarm over COVID-19 limiting access to contraceptives, abortion

OTTAWA — Limited access to contraceptives and services because of COVID-19 is likely to lead to a surge in unintended pregnancies, according to sexual-health advocates.

Darrah Teitel with Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights has already noticed a big increase in the number of people calling its helpline in distress.

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"We're looking at a huge number of unintended pregnancies, probably," Teitel said, unless something is done soon to make those services more available.

Otherwise, she said, the pandemic could lead to dire consequences for people's sexual health, particularly for more vulnerable people.

The COVID-19 outbreak has hit sexual-health services from almost every angle, from contraceptive supply to access to tests for sexually transmitted infections.

One advocate said it is also already limiting access to abortions for some people.

"There definitely are some impacts based on larger hospital priorities to prepare for an influx in COVID-19 patients," said Jill Doctoroff, the Canadian director of the National Abortion Federation, a professional association for abortion providers.

While hospitals consider access to abortions to be essential, she said those services have been sidelined or shut down completely in some institutions during the pandemic.

Public health measures have further complicated access to abortion services, which requires travel for people in some parts of the country, she said. Some clinics based outside hospitals have started to restrict their catchment areas to abide by advice to limit travel.

Doctoroff said she got a call for help from one patient whose abortion appointment was cancelled for that reason, leaving her unsure where to go or what to do.

That's a problem because abortions are obviously a time-sensitive affair, she said. Sometimes Canadians can access late-term abortions in the United States, but that's made more difficult by border closures and flight cancellations.

Meanwhile, many pharmacies have had to ration medications, including birth control, to one-month supplies to avoid shortages, according to the Canadian Pharmacists Association.

They have also noted a more limited supply of condoms, and they aren't alone.

"We are definitely hearing about condom shelves being empty," Teitel said.

Several factories in Malaysia have at least partially shut down operations over concerns about the virus, putting further strain on supply. That includes Karex, the company that bills itself as the world's largest manufacturer of condoms.

That impact may not be fully felt for a few months, according to Perry Maclean, president of Pamco Distributing, which provides condoms to public health agencies and clinics.

For now, he hasn't had a problem because the factories had good inventory on hand and the orders he's received have been typical. But there are increasing issues with freight and factory closures that could have an impact down the line.

"We don't want a spike in STIs because people can't get products," Maclean said.

Sexual-health clinics that would normally treat those potential sexually transmitted infections are also struggling. They are allowed to stay open because they are considered essential, but the circumstances make it difficult to provide the same level of service.

In Ottawa, the sexual-health clinic run by Ottawa Public Health provide low-cost birth control, counselling and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections. Like others across the country, it has had to shut down in-person services except for urgent appointments.

Some, like Planned Parenthood Ottawa, have turned to putting condoms and other sexual-health products in a bowl outside their front door, like Halloween candy, Teitel said.

It's particularly problematic for provinces that had seen a recent surge in sexually transmitted infections before the pandemic began, she said. Saskatchewan and Manitoba have both recently declared outbreaks of syphilis.

She believes all those factors together could mean unplanned pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in a few months.

"These services are legally determined to be essential services because they're life-saving, and they impact most vulnerable people first," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 2, 2020.

© Melita New Era