Irish women still subjecting themselves to DIY abortions
Sunday Business Post
We are well into the 21st century and yet Irish women are still subjecting themselves to DIY abortions
Sunday, January 11, 2009 By Jennifer O’Connell
Helen has other things to worry about apart from whether she’s part of a disturbing new social trend. She’s pregnant. Again. She already has two young children, and an unsupportive, disinterested husband.
Actually, he’s not totally disinterested. He did take it upon himself to go on the internet and order her an ‘online abortion’. She doesn’t want to take the pills that arrived in an unmarked, brown envelope a couple of weeks ago. She is worried about the consequences to her health, and the truth is that she really wants to keep the baby.
On the parenting website where she eventually wound up looking for advice, almost all those who replied to her urgent posting implored her not to take the pills. If she decided she didn’t want to go ahead with the pregnancy without her husband’s support, there were better ways, they said. Buying medication from the internet is no answer. But for a number of distressed Irishwomen, it appears to be the only answer.
Last summer, the soon-to-be swallowed up-by-the-HSE Crisis Pregnancy Agency reported falling numbers of Irishwomen seeking abortions overseas. The agency seemed slightly puzzled by this development. Perhaps more women were travelling to the Netherlands, it speculated. Or maybe people were being more careful about using contraception.
But Helen’s story might hold a clue to another, silent factor behind the decline. Once, having an abortion meant seeking a referral from an agency here; booking flights to Britain; finding someone to mind the other kids, if there are other kids; getting a sick note from work; finding between €600 and €2,000 to pay for it; and then travelling to the clinic to have the procedure.
Now, it’s all over with a click of the mouse, a payment of as little as €52 on your credit card, and a day or two’s sickness in the comfort and privacy of your own home. At least, that’s the theory. You can see that it might be an attractive route for a woman who finds herself pregnant and in despair.
As one Irishwoman calling herself simply C explains on one of the most reputable websites offering online abortions, Womenontheweb.com: ‘‘I was just over nine weeks’ pregnant when I carried out the medical abortion at home with mifepristone and misoprostol obtained from the web. I never told anyone, not even my partner, what I was doing. My partner knew I was pregnant. Once the cramps and bleeding started, I told him I was having a miscarriage. This was the only option I had, as I couldn’t afford to go to England. I did a lot of research before taking the tablets, and I would advise other women to do the same.”
But as C - who already had three teenage children and felt she couldn’t cope with another pregnancy - discovered, the procedure wasn’t quite as straightforward as she had hoped. ‘‘The bleeding and cramps were quite severe, more than I expected, even though I was over nine weeks. It was a frightening experience, and at one stage I thought of going to hospital. I would not recommend doing this on your own.”
Afterwards, she said she felt ‘‘numb’’. ‘‘The experience was frightening but after the worst of it was over, I did feel relieved but also sad for the loss of my child.”
C, it seems, was one of the lucky ones. According to the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 11 per cent of women who ordered their abortion medication through this website - and remember, this is one of the better ones - ended up needing a surgical procedure to stop excessive bleeding or complete the termination. But a far higher proportion (58 per cent) said they were simply grateful to have been able to have an abortion in this way.
The consequences of abortions being sold online are simply terrifying. Last year, the Irish Medicines Board warned of the emergence of this trend, urging women in the strongest possible terms not to use this - or any medicine - purchased over the internet, ‘‘as there can be no guarantees on the quality, safety, or effectiveness of products purchased in this manner’’.
Women buying from Women ontheweb.com can at least expect their medication to arrive in proper packaging, with a doctor’s signature enclosed. The website asks for a €70 donation, seeks reassurance from clients that they are less than nine weeks’ pregnant, and stays in touch with them afterwards. It has a discussion forum where they can share their experiences also.
Other websites cost even less and are not quite so careful, offering no information about possible risks and consequences, and dispatching packets of pills with no instructions, no labelling and no back-up if things go wrong.
For some years, Ireland has occupied an uneasy no-man’s-land on the abortion issue, opting to avoid answering the difficult question of where exactly we stand, and exporting the problem instead. Now, it seems, many women may be choosing to import their own version of a solution. And what an imperfect solution it is; little better, really, than a 21st-century version of the herbal remedy and the coat-hanger.
The advances in technology that allow people like Helen’s husband to order an abortion for his reluctant and frightened wife with the ease with which he could buy her a handbag on eBay may finally force us to get off the fence.
Because whatever our personal feelings about abortion, there is, and always has been, a demand for it from women desperate enough to do just about anything. Pretending that we can legislate away this demand is no longer an option.
If the prospect of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of traumatised women subjecting themselves to DIY abortions, all alone in their bathrooms, isn’t enough to frighten us out of our complacency, then the European Court of Human Rights might just force us out of it.
The court is due shortly to hear a challenge by three Irishwomen to the government’s ban on abortion. The women claim that their rights were denied by being forced to terminate their pregnancies outside the state.
The government is planning to contest the claim, but the Irish Family Planning Association believes the women have a ‘‘strong’’ case.
It points to a ruling by the court two years ago, which resulted in Poland being instructed to guarantee access to legal abortions.
One way or another, this is an issue that’s back on the table. Sigh as the rest of us might, for women like Helen, it’s not coming a moment too soon.