In a Pandemic, Birth Control Is Out of Reach for Many Young People

"Those who were most marginalized before this are being hit the hardest now."

[Photo: A shut down, gated pharmacy.]
In the face of COVID-19, barriers to accessing birth control have increased significantly, further denying people the reproductive health care they need. Cindy Ord/Getty Images

For continuing coverage of how COVID-19 is affecting reproductive health, check out our Special Report.  

Courtney Jones, a recent graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has a story that rings all too familiar for people across the country who have been unable to access vital contraception before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Balancing demanding college coursework with a part-time job, Jones, 21, found herself struggling to visit her doctor and cover the costs that came with using a NuvaRing, a monthly birth control device. Eventually, she had to make the difficult decision to stop using it altogether.

“The last thing I want is another story like mine,” she said.

In the face of COVID-19, barriers to accessing birth control have increased significantly, further denying people like Jones the reproductive health care they need.

A recent poll from the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association (NFPRHA) revealed that nearly half of women between 18 and 34 years old are concerned about accessing reproductive health care during the pandemic, in comparison to 13 percent of older women. About half of Black women share those concerns, compared to just 28 percent of white women.

According to Rebecca Thimmesch, campaign manager for Advocates For Youth’s #FreeThePill project, the cost of care during a period of financial unease, along with the safety concerns with physically visiting doctors, have “amplified” the struggles typically faced by people trying to access contraceptives. “COVID has been framed as a great equalizer, but what we’re actually seeing is that those who were most marginalized before this are being hit the hardest now because they often have fewer resources to fall back on,” she said.

For those who are able to use online birth control delivery services, apps have been an important way of getting access to care without visiting clinics or pharmacies. One such service, Nurx, said it experienced a 50 percent increase in requests for mail-order birth control since the public health crisis worsened in March.

Although telemedicine services and sexual health apps have become more popular, gaps in coverage remain, Thimmesch explained. “They’re not an across-the-board solution.” Some apps only serve a limited number of states, while others impose fees or may have age restrictions for confidential care. And patients who lack smartphones, access to reliable internet, or permanent addresses are locked out of these services with few safe alternatives.

“I think the last few months have been very challenging, but very crystallizing for us in the field,” Thimmesch said. “We’re seeing unprecedented attacks on sexual and reproductive healthcare; we’re facing a daunting slate of potential Supreme Court decisions; and we’re hearing from the young people we serve that they can’t access the care they need.”

Youth advocates working with the #FreeThePill campaign are still mobilizing during the pandemic—by distributing information on birth control access and organizing online resources for young people who want to participate in activism from home.

Jones is one of these youth advocates. Reproductive control and autonomy are at the heart of her work with the program. “We should have the freedom to make decisions for our own bodies and our own families. It makes you feel like you’re not in control when you don’t have the income, when you don’t have the transportation, or even the time to go to a doctor, get a prescription, go to a pharmacy, and pick it up,” Jones said. “We’re working to allow people to have reasonable, accessible, and affordable alternatives to medical visits and prescriptions.”

As a youth activist, it’s important to Jones that young people have a voice and are able to advocate for their reproductive health needs. “During this time, a lot of people don’t have the access and especially the money,” Jones said. “We want to make sure that people know we’re still fighting for their rights and what they deserve during this time.”

“It’s always been wrong to ask young people to jump through so many hoops to get the birth control they need. But now, it’s not just unnecessary, it’s risking health and safety,” Thimmesch said. “People are worried about their health and the health of their families, their livelihoods, and their ability to stay housed and fed. They shouldn’t have to worry about an unplanned pregnancy, too.”