Several international lawmakers and leaders joined rights activists Wednesday in a call for all legal barriers to abortion care to be removed worldwide, demanding clinics that were shut down during the pandemic be reopened and for a “global campaign of factual and unbiased information” to counter well-funded anti-choice groups.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo was among the signatories of the letter organized by the SheDecides movement, as well as equality ministers from France, Canada, and Norway; Parliament members from Belgium and Zimbabwe; and international development ministers from Sweden and the Netherlands.

“Our fear, as we emerge from the shock of a global pandemic, is that the situation facing women and girls risks getting worse unless we act now.” —SheDecides

“Right now, across the world, women and girls are routinely denied full access to their sexual and reproductive rights and freedoms,” the letter reads. “The disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic particularly on women’s economic empowerment and increased sexual and gender-based violence makes the need to secure gender equality more pressing than ever.”

As the International Planned Parenthood Federation reported last year, 5,633 abortion care clinics in 64 countries closed  in the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, with South Asia and Africa seeing the most closures. 

“Lockdowns and pressures on health services have made it more challenging for women and girls to access essential healthcare services such as contraception, resulting in increased pregnancies and reduced access to abortion—even in countries where the procedure is safe and legal,” the advocates wrote. “Our fear, as we emerge from the shock of a global pandemic, is that the situation facing women and girls risks getting worse unless we act now.”

SheDecides and the letter’s signatories noted that anti-choice efforts around the world are “often spearheaded by  well-funded, well-organized lobby groups” which are tied not only to aggressive harassment campaigns outside abortion clinics but also to the spread of disinformation. 

U.S.-based groups, including 40 Days for Life and Human Life International, have fundraised in South America for anti-choice politicians and lobbied them to sign anti-choice pacts, forced clinics around the world to shut down through sustained harassment of patients and providers, and opened so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” where women are pressured to continue their unwanted pregnancies. 

The signatories vowed to “stand strong and firm against these attacks” around the world.

“Women must have the right to decide about their own bodies—that is a human right,” said SheDecides Guiding Group Chair Lilianne Ploumen in a Dutch radio interview on Wednesday. 

The “SheDecides Champions” who signed the letter called for an end to policies like mandatory counseling; targeted restrictions on abortion providers or “TRAP laws,” which impose costly and medically unnecessary restrictions on clinics; and the inclusion of safe abortion care in universal healthcare plans and national health systems. 

“We need a global campaign of factual and unbiased information so women and girls know their rights and have access to accurate information about their healthcare options,” the signatories wrote. “And women need to have economic independence so they can make decisions over their own bodies—including being supported to have the children they want, with whom they want, and to have them safely.”