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Abortion regulation in Europe in the era of COVID-19: a spectrum of policy responses
  1. Caroline Moreau1,2,
  2. Mridula Shankar1,
  3. Anna Glasier3,
  4. Sharon Cameron4,
  5. Kristina Gemzell-Danielsson5
  1. 1Population Family and Reproductive Health, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
  2. 2Soins et Santé Primaire, Centre for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health (CESP) INSERM 1018, INSERM, Villejuif, France
  3. 3Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
  4. 4Sexual and Reproductive Health Services, NHS Lothian, Edinburgh, Scotland
  5. 5Department of Women’s and Children’s Health, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden
  1. Correspondence to Dr Caroline Moreau, Population Family and Reproductive Health, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD 21205, USA; cmoreau2{at}jhu.edu

Abstract

Background Unprecedented public health actions restricting movement and non-COVID related health services are likely to have affected abortion care during the pandemic in Europe. In the absence of a common approach to ensure access to this essential health service, we sought to describe the variability of abortion policies during the outbreak in Europe in order to identify strategies that improve availability and access to abortion in times of public health crises.

Methods We collected information from 46 countries/regions: 31 for which country-experts completed a survey and 15 for which we conducted a desk review. We describe abortion regulations and changes to regulations and practice during the pandemic.

Results During COVID-19, abortions were banned in six countries and suspended in one. Surgical abortion was less available due to COVID-19 in 12 countries/regions and services were not available or delayed for women with COVID-19 symptoms in eleven. No country expanded its gestational limit for abortion. Changes during COVID-19, mostly designed to reduce in-person consultations, occurred in 13 countries/regions. Altogether eight countries/regions provided home medical abortion with mifepristone and misoprostol beyond 9 weeks (from 9 weeks+6 days to 11 weeks+6 days) and 13 countries/regions up to 9 weeks (in some instances only misoprostol could be taken at home). Only six countries/regions offered abortion by telemedicine.

Conclusions The lack of a unified policy response to COVID-19 restrictions has widened inequities in abortion access in Europe, but some innovations including telemedicine deployed during the outbreak could serve as a catalyst to ensure continuity and equity of abortion care.

  • abortion
  • family planning policy
  • health policy
  • reproductive health services
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Key messages

  • In response to COVID-19, European countries have taken different approaches to changing abortion regulations and practices ranging from imposing restrictions to alleviating certain requirements.

  • New restrictions include delay or denial of abortion care to women having or living with people having COVID-19 symptoms, and decreased availability of surgical abortion.

  • A small number of countries have reduced the number of in-person clinical visits, expanded medical abortion availability via telemedicine, and relaxed regulations around mifepristone delivery and administration.

  • The absence of a unified approach to sustain abortion services, restrictions and border closures will widen inequities in access to abortion care across Europe.

Introduction

Abortion is an essential component of women’s sexual and reproductive care. While extremely safe under recommended procedures,1 it is responsible for substantial maternal morbidity and mortality when women do not have access to safe abortion care.2 3 Abortion is one of the most common procedures for women of reproductive age in Europe, with an annual incidence rate ranging from 6.4/1000 women aged 15–44 years (Switzerland) to 19.2/1000 (Sweden) in countries with complete official statistics.4 5 Over a 1-month period, more than 34 000 abortions are estimated to take place in France, England and Wales together.6 7 The need for abortion is likely to have increased in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe, given economic uncertainties, rising reports of sexual violence8 and limited access to contraception. However, the unprecedented public health action to ‘bend the curve’ of the pandemic is raising concern over women’s ability to access this essential service, due to restrictions in movement and limited availability of non-COVID-related health services, including elective interventions.9 These concerns are heightened in the context of abortion, where politics often trumps evidence. With each passing week of political inaction, thousands of women are denied treatment that cannot be postponed,10 and face the prospect of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term or of undergoing unsafe procedures.

Access to abortion care during COVID-19 in Europe is likely to be predicated on existing regulations and government or provider-led responses to women’s specific needs during the pandemic. While abortion is widely available for non-medical indications in Europe (with notable exceptions including Poland, Malta, Andorra, Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino and Northern Ireland (the latter up until 9 April 2020)), the regulations governing access and procedures are extensive and vary substantially from country to country. These regulations fall into two broad categories, as they pertain to the ‘demand for’ or ‘supply of’ abortion. On the demand side, measures include mandatory counselling and waiting periods, parental consent, funding regulations or bureaucratic requirements (eg, authorisation by several doctors). On the supply side, restrictions apply to the type of provider who can perform abortions, the type of medical interactions (in-person consultations vs remote consultations), the modalities of medication dispensation or the types of additional examination or procedures required (for gestational dating, anti-D immunoglobulin injection for women with Rhesus-negative blood group). Together these regulations form a constellation of conditions, which are unsupported by scientific evidence and place an unnecessary burden on women who seek abortion care.1

This burden is amplified in the context of COVID-19, given the time-sensitive nature of abortion care (dependent on legal gestational limits and on the efficacy and safety that vary by gestational age)1 and the increased risk of exposing abortion patients to COVID-19 acquisition.9 In all, governments have taken almost polar opposite approaches to tackling the issue, from suspension of abortion services, considered non-essential, to the lifting of regulations allowing telemedicine and self-managed care solutions.10 The absence of a unified response exposes the variability of existing country-level regulatory requirements, potentially reinforcing inequities in access to abortion in Europe. Thus, a careful exploration of abortion policies during the outbreak is warranted to understand barriers to abortion access in the COVID-19 era, and to identify effective strategies to improve sexual and reproductive health (SRH) care in times of public health crises.

Methods

We solicited information from 47 experts from 39 countries/regions between 21 April and 14 May 2020 to examine how European countries have adapted policies governing abortion care during COVID-19. The aim was to assess pre-COVID-19 regulations as well as policy changes during the pandemic in the European region, as defined by the United Nation’s geoscheme (https://unstats.un.org/unsd/methodology/m49/) with the addition of Georgia, as we had contact information for this additional country. Experts were healthcare professionals or public health practitioners involved in abortion-related research or clinical care. They were invited to share this information via a 7-min questionnaire completed electronically or on paper. This study did not require ethical committee approval as it does not qualify as human subjects’ research. We collected information from 46 countries/regions overall, including 31 for which 32 country-experts completed our survey and 15 for which we conducted a desk review of abortion policies in the absence of a completed survey.

In this article, we describe abortion regulations across Europe and changes to regulations and/or practice that were implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. We examine how country responses (official or provider-led) varied according to pre-COVID regulatory conditions and provide a narrative description of expert suggestions to improve abortion services during this global pandemic.

Patient and public involvement statement

This public policy analysis does not involve patients or the public in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this work.

Results

Increasing barriers to abortion access during COVID-19

In the context of COVID-19, abortion care was available to varying extents in 39 countries/regions, banned for non-medical reasons in six countries (Andorra, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, San Marino and Poland) and suspended in Hungary due to a ban on non-life-threatening surgeries in state hospitals. In Poland, amid the COVID-19 crisis, the parliament discussed additional restrictions to ban abortion for fetal anomalies in April 2020 but deferred a final decision. In Northern Ireland, guidelines for abortion care were issued in March 2020 but these did not include safe options during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mounting pressure on the Department of Health to address this issue resulted in the provision of medical abortion with home use of misoprostol on 9 April 2020.11 Other limitations were noted in 31 countries/regions represented in the survey. Abortion care was not available for women who had COVID-19 symptoms or were living with someone who presented with symptoms in the Netherlands. Ten countries/regions suggested abortion care was to be delayed in symptomatic women or those testing positive for coronavirus (Belgium, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Montenegro, Slovenia, England, Wales and Scotland). In 13 surveyed countries, experts considered that surgical abortion was likely to be less available due to COVID-19 including Hungary where surgical abortion was suspended.

Lifting of regulatory barriers for medical abortion was rare

Lack of access to surgical abortion was rarely compensated by the lifting of regulatory barriers for medical abortion. Expansions to medical abortion care during COVID-19 were noted in 13 countries/regions surveyed, namely Belgium, Estonia, Ireland, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Portugal, Switzerland, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, six of which involved official policy amendments. These changes (displayed in table 1 and described in further detail in the following paragraphs) were largely considered temporary, and pertained mostly to the expansion of home-based medical abortion and modes of dispensing mifepristone (the first medication dispensed for medical abortion). None of the surveyed countries/regions expanded the legal gestational age limit for abortions (including the 16 countries/regions permitting elective abortions only up to 12 weeks or less) and none of the 12 surveyed countries/regions requiring mandatory waiting periods officially lifted this regulation, although abortion providers in Portugal have forgone this rule during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Table 1

Changes to abortion services (mostly related to medical abortion*) instituted in 10 European countries in the context of COVID-19

Innovations to promote telemedicine and self-managed abortion solutions

Most of the amendments were designed to minimise in-person clinical consultations. Six countries/regions officially expanded home medical abortion during the COVID-19 outbreak (England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, France and Finland), either as a new service delivery option or through expansion of the gestational age eligibility limit. In Switzerland, some providers also extended the gestational age limit for home medical abortion from 7 to 9 weeks, although this was not officially enacted. Medical abortion at home (including home use of both mifepristone and misoprostol) beyond 9 weeks was only offered in four countries/regions (England, Wales, Scotland and Sweden), while misoprostol (taken 24–48 hours after mifepristone for medical abortion) could be administered at home up to 9 weeks and 6 days gestation in Belgium, Portugal and Northern Ireland and up to 10 weeks in Finland (where mifepristone was dispensed in a clinical setting).

Telemedicine for medical abortion, permitted in the Stockholm region of Sweden before COVID-19, was provided in five additional countries/regions during the pandemic including England, Wales, Scotland, France and Ireland. Other requirements for in-person consultations were partially alleviated by encouraging phone consultations in Belgium, Portugal and Estonia (although not officially enacted) or by telemedicine for post-abortion visits in Portugal. Other country-specific measures to reduce facility-based interactions involved support for non-use of ultrasound for gestational dating (gestation based on last menstrual period when certain) in early pregnancy in England, Wales, Scotland and France, and extending abortion privileges to community-based gynaecologists in Norway.

Regulations governing the dispensation of mifepristone were also reconsidered in five countries/regions (England, Wales, Scotland, France and Ireland). During the pandemic, pharmacy access to prescribed mifepristone was permitted in France, where it was not permitted before COVID-19, while the drugs could be delivered by mail in four countries/regions (England, Wales, Scotland and Georgia) or home-delivered in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Rising inequities in access to abortion services during COVID-19

Altogether the diversity of pre-COVID-19 rules regulating abortion coupled with inconsistent responses to the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated a heterogeneous landscape of abortion provision in Europe, ranging from the most restrictive conditions denying elective abortions to more progressive solutions promoting telemedicine in England, Wales, Scotland, France, Ireland and Sweden. The summary of abortion regulations during COVID-19 (table 2) displays inequities in terms of gestational age limits and waiting periods, as well as required in-person consultations, access to surgical abortion, or delivery of medical abortion drugs.

Table 2

Abortion regulations during COVID-19 across 44 European countries/regions (for the countries in italic type the information was based on desk review)

Concerns over these rising inequities in access to abortion in Europe were voiced by a number of country-experts, who acknowledged the impact of international border closures and restrictions on movement imposed by lockdowns on women’s access to abortion care. They suggested that these constraints were aggravated by the escalating numbers of women who are victims of abuse 8 12 and for women who have poor access to abortion services, due to their geographical or socioeconomic circumstances. One expert further noted that the absence of public action in the Netherlands to address these obstacles, including the inability to access abortion services for women who had little freedom of movement during COVID-19 restrictions (including victims of abuse), was challenged in court, but with limited success in lifting these unnecessary regulations.

Discussion

This landscape of abortion access in COVID-19-stricken Europe has revealed a general lack of government response to ensuring continuity of care for women in need of this essential service at the height of the pandemic. Responses ranged from political attempts to further proscribe abortion in Poland or prohibit access in Hungary, to progressive actions expanding telemedicine solutions amid transport limitations and medical service disruptions in England, Wales, Scotland, France and Ireland. As such, the COVID-19 pandemic has crystallised growing inequities in abortion access across the continent.

The closing of borders aggravated human rights violations denying women access to comprehensive SRH services, while also exposing the burden and health hazards related to outdated requirements imposing unnecessary facility-based visits. None of the surveyed countries considered expanding the gestational limit for abortions performed for non-medical reasons, with gestational ages ranging from 7 weeks in the Czech Republic to up to 24 weeks in England, Wales and Scotland. The mandatory waiting period was unofficially removed by providers in one country but remained in 15 others, further restricting access given limited transportation and reduced service availability. While mounting evidence supports home abortion and telemedicine solutions for medical abortion, shown to be safe, effective, and acceptable to women,13 only 21 countries/regions in Europe provided any home abortion solutions during COVID-19 (13 countries up to 9 weeks and eight countries/regions beyond 9 weeks). In some of these countries, only misoprostol could be taken at home (Estonia, Belgium, Denmark, Northern Ireland or Portugal, for example) while mifepristone was still required to be taken in a clinical facility. Only six countries/regions offered abortion by telemedicine.

The lack of political will to lift unnecessary regulations is discouraging, yet we recognise the concerted efforts of some governments and providers who swiftly acted to sustain abortion care during COVID-19 disruptions. This was accomplished by maintaining facility-based abortion care as an essential service and shifting to non-facility care through a constellation of innovative actions including phone consultations, telemedicine and new ways of delivering medications to women. Consequently, home abortion solutions were expanded in a number of countries/regions, and abortion by telemedicine was practised in six countries/regions. We suggest these innovations should serve as guiding examples to unify country policies towards ensuring continuity of abortion care during COVID-19 or other outbreaks in Europe. We believe that these advances, mostly conceived as temporary responses to a health crisis, could serve as catalyst towards ‘liberalising’ abortion provision and that they should become the standard of care .13 Such an expansion, however, should carefully be grounded in evidence by updating current clinical guidelines to specify the recommendations for home medical abortion and telemedicine abortion provision. In addition, these remote care options should be included in public health plans to guarantee equity in abortion access. Such reforms are urgently needed as fewer than half of the countries in Europe provide full funding for abortion services14 and only a few have passed legislation to include telehealth expertise in their public health plans.

Conclusions

This study shows wide disparities in access to abortion care during COVID-19, with reduced access in a number of countries due to government inaction in lifting abortion regulations to enable safe abortion care amid healthcare system disruptions. Nonetheless, a few countries deployed innovative strategies during the outbreak, promoting telemedicine and self-management solutions. We stress the need for such innovations to guide a unified response to ensure continuity and equity of abortion care for women across the European continent during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Acknowledgments

The authors thank the following expert informants: Dr Fiala (Austria), Dr Verougstraete (Belgium), Dr Cvetkoff (Bulgaria), Dr Stepanic (Croatia), Dr Lubusky (Czech Republic), Dr Karro (Estonia), Dr Heikinheimo (Finland), Dr Agostini (France), Dr Shengelia (Georgia), Dr Asatiani (Georgia), Dr Halder (Germany), Dr Jónsdóttir (Iceland), Dr Murphy (Ireland), M Taylor (Ireland), A Spillane (Ireland), Dr Henchion (Ireland), Dr Parachini (Italy), Dr Lazdane (Latvia), Dr Chery (Luxembourg), Dr Cassar (Malta), Dr Haliti (Montenegro), Dr Gomperts (Netherlands), Dr Løkeland-Stai (Norway), Dr Bombas (Portugal), Dr Pinter (Slovenia), Dr Lertxundi (Spain), Dr Gemzell-Danielsson (Sweden), Dr Choon-Kang (Switzerland), Dr Cameron (UK) and Dr Podolskyi (Ukraine). They also thank B Fredrick for her comments on this analysis.

References

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Footnotes

  • Contributors CM, AG, SC and KG-D conceived the study. CM and MS developed the study instrument with input from AG, SC and KG-D. CM and MS led analyses of data submitted by country-experts along with desk review of country-level policies for which expert feedback was not received. CM led manuscript writing, with contributions from all the authors who also gave final approval for manuscript submission.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement All data relevant to the study are included in the article or uploaded as supplementary information. The data collected for this study are displayed in the tables.

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