The pandemic has affected reproductive health because of barriers to contraception access, potentially increasing unwanted pregnancies, reported Tracy Kuo Lin, PhD, of the University of California, San Francisco, and associates.
During the pandemic, women have experienced an increased desire to avoid pregnancy, and when that desire is coupled with loss of income, accessing contraception becomes more difficult, Dr. Lin and colleagues observed in a cross-sectional survey published in the journal Contraception.
The study aimed to quantify the effect of COVID-19 on women’s economic status and reproductive health decisions related to childbearing and pregnancy. Women aged 18-49 who resided in the U.S. were targeted via Facebook and Instagram advertisements from May 16 to June 16, 2020. In all, 554 racially diverse respondents from 43 states were selected: 41% aged 18-24, 37% aged 25-34, and 23% aged 35-49.
Income losses affect nearly half of respondents
In determining risk of unwanted pregnancy, the researchers considered the influence of COVID-19 on a number of factors related to economic well-being as well as respondents’ sexual activity, intimate partner violence, overall desire for pregnancy, and access to contraception as issues affecting their interest in becoming pregnant and their ability to access medical care and contraception. Overall, 46% experienced a reduction in income, 43% reported no change, and 10% experienced an increase in income.
Difficulty in being able to afford food, transportation, and housing doubled among respondents from 8% to 16% as a result of the pandemic. The study authors cited education, race/ethnicity, federal poverty level, and change in income as predictors of inability to provide for these basic needs.
A total of 83% of respondents reported having sex within the past month; 54% of those had sex with someone they lived with, compared with 29% who had sex with someone they did not live with. The pandemic had no impact on sexual desire for 37% of respondents, compared with 32% who experienced a decrease in desire, and 29% who experienced more desire for sex. The presence of shelter-in-place orders had no effect on frequency of or desire for sex. Among the respondents, 4% noted intimate partner violence, which increased slightly from 3% before the pandemic.
Among respondents using contraception, the study authors noted that 17% reported greater difficulty accessing birth control during the pandemic compared with 4% who felt access had become easier. Of those citing increased difficulties, 9% noted increasing challenges getting to a pharmacy, 4% were less able to afford birth control, 3% said it had become harder to obtain a prescription, and 1% cited difficulties having long-acting reversible contraceptives removed.
Despite the pandemic’s overall impact on quality of life, 41% of respondents reported a stronger desire to become pregnant, compared with 25% who had a reduced desire, and 34% whose interest in pregnancy was unchanged by the pandemic.
More than one-third of respondents (37%) admitted that COVID-19 contributed to their fears of becoming pregnant while 13% indicated their fear of pregnancy stemmed from concerns over being able to afford the cost of having a child. Not surprisingly, the decrease in desire for pregnancy was twice as high in those who reported they were unable to afford food, transportation, and/or housing compared with those who saw no change in their ability to afford basic needs.
“In these uncertain economic times, it is of utmost importance to create policies that will ensure access to and comprehensive coverage of core sexual and reproductive health services,” Dr. Lin and colleagues urged. “By doing so, we safeguard people’s ability to make decisions that support their reproductive health goals.”
Will COVID-19 drive needed practice and policy changes?
“This study highlights the economic and reproductive health toll of COVID-19 and the pressing need for improved contraception access,” Eve Espey, MD, MPH, said in an interview.
“Ob.gyns. and other practitioners can use this information to consider evidence-based practice changes that incorporate telemedicine visits, extended refills on contraceptive methods, and a focus on postpartum and postabortion initiation of contraception,” noted Dr. Espey, of the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. For women who are experiencing economic hardship, consulting with state-based programs that offer pharmacy access and online access to contraceptives may offer a reasonable alternative, she added.
The study was funded by the University of California, San Francisco’s National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health. Dr. Lin received funding from Lazarex Cancer Foundation. The remaining authors had no conflicts of interest and reported no disclosures.