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One in three women struggled to get their birth control, had to delay a doctor’s visit for sexual or reproductive health care, or had to cancel a visit entirely due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to findings released Wednesday by the Guttmacher Institute.
Researchers at the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks restrictions on reproductive health, surveyed more than 2,000 cisgender women across the United States in late April and early May. Even in those early weeks of the global shutdown, they discovered that the pandemic had already made getting birth control and related health care a struggle for more women than the 2008 recession had.
That finding surprised even Laura Lindberg, the Guttmacher Institute’s principal research scientist.
“We’re just a few short months in the pandemic. I think the fuller effects are still unfolding,” Lindberg said. “Some of the big concerns here are as individuals lose their jobs, with that, in our country, they also often lose their health insurance. Women are more likely to be losing jobs. Women from more marginalized communities are in occupations where it’s not clear those jobs are gonna come back as quickly.”
Experts have warned for months that the pandemic would likely imperil people’s ability to get birth control and reproductive health care. Though government officials urged people to stock up on essential medications, contraception isn’t available over the counter in most states. And as businesses and colleges shutter, people have had to transfer their prescription to a new location or fight to get an appointment with a doctor — even as many doctor’s offices close their doors.
Those are challenges even for people who’ve managed to hold onto their jobs, and their health insurance, in the middle of record-high unemployment. But as people are pushed out of work by the pandemic, the obstacles to care can continue to mount. Without insurance, contraception can also cost hundreds of dollars a year.
Women aren’t only facing the prospect of going without birth control — they may also be delaying or skipping procedures like STI screenings, pap smears, and mammograms. In several states, access to abortion was also briefly choked off, as officials tried to cite the pandemic as a reason to ban abortion, and a previous Guttmacher study found that HPV vaccinations among adolescents have plummeted by 68% between February and early April.
“It’s just layer upon layer,” Lindberg said. “And we focus so much on where people are getting their Lysol wipes or where are people getting their groceries, or how are they doing that, but this matters in a woman’s life also. And it’s something that they need, immediately.”
The Guttmacher Institute didn’t specifically ask how or why women had trouble getting the health care they needed. But they did find stark racial disparities in who is struggling. While 29% of white women reported that the pandemic made it harder to access contraception and reproductive health care, 38% of Black women and 45% of Hispanic women said the same.
Because Americans tend to get their health insurance through their jobs, that racial disparity in access to care is inextricably tied to another disparity, in unemployment. Although the U.S. unemployment rate dipped in May to a still-astronomical 13.3% — from a high of 14.7% in April — unemployment among black workers rose to 16.8%. That’s higher than the rate has been in more than a decade.
More than half of the surveyed women told the Guttmacher Institute that they or someone in their household had either lost their job or seen their work hours cut due to the pandemic. About one in three said that, in April 2020, they were financially worse off than they had been the year before. And these women were more likely to say that they had struggled to access birth control or sexual and reproductive health care.
Even as women struggle to get their birth control, more women are reporting that the pandemic has led them to reconsider if and how they want to have kids. More than a third of the surveyed women said that, because of the pandemic, they had decided to get pregnant later or have fewer children. So a coronavirus baby boom is pretty unlikely, Lindberg said, pointing to the fact that the U.S. birth rate fell after the 2008 recession and never recovered.
“The uncertainty about what the future holds and the disruptions to the way people live their lives make a baby bust much more likely,” she said.
Cover: In this Aug. 26, 2016, file photo, a one-month dosage of hormonal birth control pills is displayed in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)