Northern Ireland: Internet boom in DIY abortion pills
The Guardian February 1st.
Women in Northern Ireland are turning to the internet to buy £60 abortion pills because they cannot afford to travel to mainland Britain to terminate their pregnancies, it has been claimed.
Audrey Simpson, director of the Family Planning Association in Belfast, revealed that a rising number of women had contacted her to say they had suffered complications after taking the pills.
"These calls are increasing all the time," she said. "Travelling for an abortion is expensive by comparison."
Simpson said she was concerned that some women purchasing the pills, which should only be used up to the ninth week of pregnancy, had lied about the stage they were at on online questionnaires.
While the pills are legal to buy over the internet, campaigners fear that women may face a larger risk because they do not have a face-to-face consultation with a doctor. They also worry that women will not seek medical help if they suffer complications because they fear being arrested for inducing an abortion.
"Women in Northern Ireland ring us all the time asking if the sites selling the pills are reputable," said Simpson.
"There are women who have 'lied' about how far pregnant they are to get these pills. Yet if they suffer complications and go to their local A&E, doctors can report them for illegal conduct which can potentially land them with a hefty prison sentence."
Dawn Purvis, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), the only party in Northern Ireland that is "pro-choice", described the online pills as a new "form of backstreet abortion".
"There have been cases documented around the world where women have died from sourcing bogus medication or taking more than is required," said Purvis.
"I know of women who have taken several doses to make sure it worked. One woman contacted me after she had suffered internal haemorrhaging. I am hearing more about these 'pills' at the moment with the recession in full swing. Money is short and it's mainly working-class women who can't afford to travel. Buying the pills off the net is an easy solution."
A report published last year by the International Journal of Gynaecology and Obstetrics attested that in Europe, to date, more than 1.5 million women have terminated their pregnancies with mifepristone and misoprostol. The combination of the two pills causes the non-surgical termination of a pregnancy and can be taken in the early stages.
As it stands, abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland, with the exception of one circumstance: where it can be proved that continuation of a pregnancy results in a woman's mental or physical health being in "grave" danger of "serious and permanent damage".
To date, this does not include a woman who becomes pregnant as a result of rape or incest.
It also doesn't include pregnancies which are terminated due to foetal abnormality, tests for which are freely available in Northern Ireland from the 12th week of pregnancy.
"Basically the case law in Northern Ireland is based on the Bourne ruling which dates back to 1939 and the prosecution of a doctor who performed an abortion for a suicidal 14-year-old who became pregnant from gang rape," explains Dawn Purvis.
"However, there is plenty of 'anecdotal' evidence that abortions are available here for middle-class clientele in private clinics."
According to Purvis, women who have later abortions in the UK or Europe are nearly always "working-class" women who can't get the money together in time.
"And if they do get the money, they can't afford to bring anyone with them, so do that journey alone," she added.
Although there are no "official" figures on abortion in Northern Ireland, last year 1,345 women who had abortions in clinics in England and Wales gave addresses in Northern Ireland.
The FPA pointed out that the number did not take account of women who travelled for abortions in Scotland or further afield to countries such as Belgium.
Induced abortion is one of the most common gynaecological procedures in the UK, with about 186,000 terminations performed annually in England and Wales and about 11,500 in Scotland.
"Women cannot avail of their rights under the law, while pro-life politicians deny the facts," says Goretti Horgan, spokesperson for Alliance for Choice.
"The vast majority of women I speak to are lone parents or women in poverty who cannot afford to have another child. They are devastated by this difficult decision and often feel suicidal."
But Unionist party MP Jeffrey Donaldson says the FPA and other organisations need to produce substantive evidence to support claims that more women are using the abortion pill.
"If there is greater use of this pill, it is because there are organisations in Northern Ireland which are promoting the use of this medicine which needs to be looked at by the law here," he said.
The director of Precious Life, Bernadette Smyth, said she was greatly disturbed that women were able to buy pills which can terminate a pregnancy from the web. "This is a horrendous type of abortion, which will traumatise many, many women. This is the equivalent of bringing backstreet illegal abortions to Northern Ireland," she said.
Source: The Guardian, 1 February 2009