Irish women are risking their health by buying termination pills online because they can’t afford to travel abroad, writes CAROL RYAN The Irish Times – Tuesday, March 15, 2011
IN OCTOBER last year the Irish Medicines Board (IMB) reported that it seized 1,216 abortion pills being imported into Ireland in 2009. In 2008, only 48 pills were seized. It looked like a real challenge to the State’s abortion laws was emerging – could such huge numbers really be trying to get around our strict laws by ordering these pills online?
The media asked whether Irish women, no longer able to afford to travel to the UK for a termination, were now beginning to self-abort out of financial desperation.
Although some reports gave the impression there were 1,216 individual packages, the breakdown is less dramatic. There were 62 consignments: 50 addressed to women and, interestingly, 12 to men. That some were bulk supplies suggests an abortion pill black market is operating in Ireland.
In January, a woman was prosecuted for selling abortifacients from a Chinese supermarket on Parnell Street in Dublin. Figures for 2010 are not available, but the IMB has confirmed the numbers have decreased.
However, there is wider concern that use of the abortion pill is on the rise in Ireland. Anti-abortion and pro-choice groups found rare common ground on the issue – that it is not a good development for women’s health.
For an internet-savvy population, getting concrete information about abortion is no longer difficult. As the recession bites, many women cannot afford the €1,200 it costs for an abortion. The €70 illegal online pills may seem like their only option.
Like any medication bought online, there is no guarantee of the quality of the pills and the IMB has issued several health warnings about importing them.
There are many websites selling bogus abortion pills. Even if the pills are genuine, there are potential health risks when they are taken without medical supervision or advice on the correct dosage.
In countries where it is medically supervised, use of abortion pills, also called a “medical abortion”, is safe.
A combination of Mifepristone and Misoprostol is taken to cause a miscarriage to happen. Some 40 per cent of all UK abortions are performed this way.
However, there is no way to take them under medical supervision in Ireland. Mifepristone is banned and products containing Misoprostol are tightly regulated.
“They need to be taken with medical guidance and that is where the IMB is coming from,” says Cork-based GP Mary Favier, who has treated up to 15 women in the past year who had complications from abortion pills.
She says the taboo surrounding abortion makes women reluctant to seek medical attention.
“They fear the stigma of presenting to maternity units or a gynaecologist, saying they have taken the tablets. I had a woman ring over Christmas who had waited nearly two weeks with problems.
“As doctors we would never advocate doing this without medical supervision, but for women who are desperate or don’t have the money to travel for what is a safe procedure elsewhere, I can absolutely understand why they are doing it.”
Crisis pregnancy agencies are also worried about the trend. Chief executive of the Well Woman Clinic, Alison Begas, says there is evidence that abortion pills are being used frequently in Ireland.
“In the last year to 18 months, we have noticed they are citing various websites and are aware that they can buy abortion pills on the net.
“They see it as simple, anonymous and it doesn’t require them to book flights and perhaps justify being absent from work for a day or two.”
Marie Stopes Reproductive Choices has noticed more women needing medical attention for complications such as excessive bleeding after taking abortion pills.
Women are also finding themselves back at square one when bogus pills have not worked, but now with a more advanced pregnancy and having to organise funds for a surgical abortion abroad.
Women on Web is a non-profit website that supplies abortion pills to women in countries where there is no access to abortion.
The organisation’s deliveries to Ireland have been disrupted by the IMB seizures and in a statement, it says: “We deeply regret that IMB is restricting a safe option and often the only safe option for women living in Ireland.
“The IMB, by seizing the medicines, violates several rights, including legal right to privacy, the right to correspondence and the right to protect one’s health.
“The service can be received in Northern Ireland and Women on Web supports women in Ireland to find safe alternatives.”
The organisation would not give out figures on how many Irish women were contacting it for assistance, but up to 30 have posted their experience of using the service on the website.
The posts give an insight into the reasons some of the women who are using the service are choosing this option.
Anna, who had a grown-up family and four grandchildren, used the service after falling pregnant unexpectedly.
“Having had the ‘comfort of a husband who had had a vasectomy’, pregnancy never entered our heads.
“However, that tube can grow back, and after 28 years of marriage and 17 years after the op, it did. Considering our ages I know that we did the right thing.”
Another woman, Louise, used the service for financial reasons: “ is not available here, and I would have paid upwards of £1,000 [€1,153.69] to go abroad and have the procedure.”
Joanne experienced complications and had to be taken to hospital. “I took the pills as prescribed and the bleeding started as expected. I had no pain at all, just a few menstrual-like cramps. I had excessive bleeding though.
“My consultant looked after me and did a DC. I didn’t need to tell them I had taken the pills and it was treated as a miscarriage.”
‘The only verified source on the internet providing the abortion pill (mifepristone plus misoprostol) is www.womenonweb.org