In Depth

Coronavirus and women’s bodies: the new rules

The pandemic is changing the lives of females worldwide in unexpected ways

Changes in rules and services that disproportionately affect women and their bodies have been among the unforeseen consequences of the coronavirus outbreak.

Of the two sexes, men are proving more susceptible to Covid-19, with higher mortality rates reported among males worldwide, but some of the indirect effects for women are also significant and potentially life threatening.

Domestic violence

Women’s Aid has called for more resources from the UK government as the charity faces a surge in domestic violence cases as a result of the coronavirus lockdown - a trend that has also been reported in China and a number of other countries.

“It’s estimated that 1.6 million women in England and Wales experienced domestic abuse last year, and it’s overwhelmingly women who endure repeated attacks (83% of victims of more than ten incidents are women),” reports Prospect magazine. “The risk is that under self-isolation, controlling perpetrators will further restrict their partner’s freedoms and threaten their safety.”

In an article published in The Mail on Sunday at the weekend, Home Secretary Priti Patel clarified that anyone at risk of domestic abuse is allowed to leave their home to seek refuge.

She said: “My message to every potential victim is simple: we have not forgotten you and we will not let you down. And my message to every perpetrator is equally simple: you will not get away with your crimes.”

Pregnancy and birth

Pregnant women were unexpectedly placed in the “vulnerable” group by England’s chief medical officer on 16 March, and advised to reduce social contact for at least 12 weeks.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) says that “pregnant women are still no more likely to contract coronavirus than the general population” and that “there is no evidence that pregnant women who get coronavirus are more at risk of serious complications than any other healthy individuals”.

However, the evidence is limited, so pregnant women have been classed as vulnerable as a precautionary measure.

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Meanwhile, some hospital trusts have limited birthing options, including cancelling all home births and banning visitors - in some cases, even fathers - from hospital wards before and after labour. 

The RCOG currently says that women should be encouraged to have an asymptomatic birth partner for their labour and birth, noting that this is “known to make a significant difference to the safety and well-being of women in childbirth”.

Despite such advice, hospitals in other countries including Ireland and France have banned expectant fathers and partners from births. 

More than 300,000 people have signed a petition to protect women’s rights to have a birth partner during the coronavirus outbreak in the UK, amid fears that British hospitals might follow suit.

High-risk roles

In an article for The Guardian, BBC Radio 5 Live presenter Emma Barnett points out that despite being advised to stay at home, some pregnant women have been “told to come back into work by their employers – including the riskiest of all, the NHS”.

As Barnett says, “this leaves women working in healthcare with an uncomfortable decision: do they protect the lives of their unborn, or those seeking treatment?”

A study by economics think-tank Autonomy found that in the UK, female workers account for more than three-quarters (2.5 million out of 3.2 million) of the job roles that involve high risk of exposure to the new coronavirus, in fields such as social care, nursing and pharmacy.

Abortion

The UK government has been flip-flopping over the rules on terminations. On 23 March, the Department of Health published guidance stating that laws were being relaxed during the lockdown to allow women to take pills to abort early pregnancies at home without travelling to a clinic - but then withdrew the reform just hours later. 

Following pressure from the RCOG, Royal College of Midwives and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the department has now made another U-turn and says that women will be able to have home abortions following a phone or online consultation. “This measure will be on a temporary basis,” a spokesperson said.

IVF

In a “perverse contrast” to the battle to allow women access to home abortions, “consider the deeply unenviable position of those longing for a child, and already into a cycle of IVF, having their embryo transfers cancelled, in some cases just hours before”, says Barnett in The Guardian.

In an investigation into the crisis, ITV News correspondent Paul Brand spoke to dozens of hopeful mothers and fathers who have had their fertility treatment postponed, with many women facing depleting egg reserves as every month passes.

“Each year in the UK, around 75,000 cycles of IVF are carried out, resulting in around 20,000 births,” Brand says. “If coronavirus closes clinics for just six months, half of those babies may never be born. And if fertility has always been a game of luck, this crisis brings another cruel twist.” 

In a final note of warning, he adds: “The devastating reality is that the impact of coronavirus won’t just be measured by the number of lives lost, but by the number of lives which may never be created.”

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