Even with the pandemic wreaking havoc on the U.S. and global health care systems and economies, reproductive health care needs and decisions cannot be put on hold during the COVID-19 crisis. Reproductive autonomy and the tools to exercise it—including contraceptive services and supplies, abortion care and pregnancy-related care—may be more urgent than ever as people face increasingly difficult reproductive choices in a time of heightened health, social and economic stress.

Adding to these pressures, sexual and reproductive health and rights are being neglected by many policymakers. Notably, the $2 trillion federal COVID-19 relief package signed on March 27 provides desperately needed funds to state and local governments, hospitals, businesses and federal agencies, but it leaves out much in the way of protection and support for sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Moreover, social conservatives are using the COVID-19 crisis to escalate their assault on reproductive freedom, such as by using it as a hollow justification for shutting down abortion clinics and adding new restrictions to prevent Planned Parenthood affiliates and other reproductive health providers from accessing emergency funding. Conservatives are peddling false choices: We can and must fight COVID-19 while still protecting reproductive health and rights.

As Congress prepares additional relief packages, here is what it needs to prioritize to ensure that all people can make the decisions that are right for them and their families.   

 

1) Treat sexual and reproductive health care as the essential care it is. As Congress addresses COVID-19, it must acknowledge that in this time of crisis, services related to contraception, abortion and maternity care are as essential to people’s lives as food, shelter and security. These health services are all time-sensitive by their very nature, because pregnancy cannot be put on hold. Specifically, Congress should:

 

2) Protect and expand access to comprehensive health insurance coverage. In this crisis, more people will need insurance coverage in order to afford all of their health care needs. Congress must bolster Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and improve coverage specifically for sexual and reproductive health care. To do so, Congress should:

 

3) Bolster support for family planning providers in the United States and globally. In a public health crisis, patients turn to health care providers they know and trust, such as family planning providers. And with their lives turned upside down, patients need flexibility and support in the providers and services available to them. Congress must help keep family planning providers afloat and increase options for services. Specifically, Congress should:

 

4) Protect and expand access to timely abortion care. Abortion providers are an essential source of care during the ongoing crisis. Yet, abortion has long been separated from most other health care, and that isolation is one reason abortion care is so vulnerable in a crisis like this. Adding to that, abortion restrictions at the federal and state levels impose unconscionable barriers to care that are exacerbated during a public health crisis and put the health of patients, providers and health center staff at risk—for instance, by often requiring patients to make unnecessary or repeated trips to an abortion clinic. Congress must address this problem and should:

 

5) Promote safe maternal and newborn care. Although the direct health impact of COVID-19 on pregnant women and newborns is still unclear, the pandemic is certain to present new barriers to safe prenatal, delivery and postnatal services. The United States faces a maternal mortality crisis and vast disparities in maternal health outcomes, as do many other countries; these are likely to worsen during a public health crisis when there may be a shortage of health care providers and supplies, and patients may have difficulty traveling to and affording the care they need. Congress must prevent the further deterioration of maternal and newborn health, and should:

 

6) Protect the pharmaceutical supply chain. The global supply chain for medication and other health care supplies is under severe strain because of widespread disruption from the pandemic. As Congress acts to address potential shortages, it should:

 

7) Support telehealth for reproductive health services and providers. Telehealth is being deployed during the pandemic to provide a broad range of health care services while limiting unnecessary travel and in-person interactions. Many reproductive health services can be safely and effectively provided via telehealth, including contraceptive counseling and prescription, medication abortion, preexposure prophylaxis to prevent HIV, and some prenatal and postpartum care. Congress should:

 

8) Prevent religious institutions from denying essential care and discriminating against patients. With the health care system stretched thin, patients’ ability to vet and choose their providers will be increasingly limited. These circumstances highlight why we cannot allow religious doctrine to override health care needs. Congress must take steps to limit or eliminate the ability of institutions and individuals to refuse to provide care, including sexual and reproductive health services and services for LGBTQ+ patients. Specifically, Congress should:

 

9) Secure the rights of people and communities at heightened risk. In addition to all of the challenges outlined above, many groups of people face a range of severe social, economic, physical and political barriers to health services, often imposed purposefully by the Trump administration. These additional barriers will only get magnified during the pandemic, because of the direct effects of COVID-19 on the health care system and the economy, the disproportionate impact of measures intended to halt the spread of the virus, and social conservatives’ use of the crisis to pursue their regressive agenda. Congress must address the specific needs of people and populations who have been neglected and marginalized:

This list is by no means exhaustive of all that Congress can and should do, and other federal and state policymakers also have important roles to play. Many of these actions are ones that Congress has failed to take for years or even decades. Yet, it is clear that reproductive health care is especially vulnerable to the broader problems posed by a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic and is being singled out and attacked during this crisis. For these reasons, Congress must recognize that strong protections for sexual and reproductive health and rights are even more critical right now.