The pill problem
Many women in Ireland are using medication to induce abortion, but the tablets are not always safe. Would the proposed Protection of Life During Pregnancy law put women in even greater danger?
Health risks: mifepristone (above) and misoprostol, which cost about €90 online, cause medical miscarriage. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images
Every week women in Ireland order pills on the internet to end their pregnancies. Already, more than 4,000 women travel to British clinics every year for abortions. Now a large number are taking a different journey with the click of a mouse.
Taken at home in the first nine weeks of pregnancy, the mifepristone and misoprostol pills, which cost about €90, cause medical miscarriage – if the pills received aren’t bogus.
In May this year “Louise”, who was a student when she became pregnant, told The Irish Times of her experience of ordering the drugs from Women on Web, a Netherlands-based organisation. Louise took them at home in her rented accommodation.
In March last year another student, new to Ireland, shared her experience of using pills she had ordered online. “When I took the second pill I was very sick for most of the night, and I was in a lot of pain. Afterwards I was bleeding for a week.”
She said inducing her own abortion in this way, without travel, cost less. “I can’t afford to go to the doctor. I was just able to pay for the pills but had to sacrifice food.”
The procedure is legal in other countries, according to Mary Favier, a Cork GP who belongs to Doctors for Choice. “The majority of first-trimester abortions in UK clinics, for example, are medical abortions using these tablets. So it’s a standard procedure, it’s acceptable and it’s considered safe.”
Between January and May this year 194 pills were seized, according to the Irish Medicines Board and Revenue. More have come through undetected; pregnant women often provide an address in Northern Ireland from where they pick them up.
The Irish Family Planning Association believes there has been an increase in the practice. It says that at one of its Dublin clinics three women presented in the first three months of this year for aftercare, following such attempts to induce an abortion. Many women who buy these pills online do so because they are vulnerable, financially or in other ways; the cost is a tenth that of travelling to Britain to have an abortion.
“The women who choose to do this are those in very difficult situations,” says Sinéad Kennedy of Action on X, a pro-choice group.
“Often they are not capable of travelling, even for a short period. They might have other children, they may have family commitments, they might not be able to take time off work and, for most people I know, finances are a big concern.”
Other situations include asylum seekers or undocumented migrants, unable to get a visa to enter the UK.
There’s a big difference, though, between women being given these pills at British clinics under supervision and those ordering them online to take at home alone.
“In England there is a 24-hour support line that you can ring if you have the slightest problem; if the bleeding hasn’t started, if the bleeding is too heavy or if it’s painful,” says Favier.
“That’s the difficulty here. Irish women are taking these tablets, presuming they get active tablets and not dodgy ones, without any support. They don’t have a telephone service. They can’t talk to their doctors, and they are very vulnerable.”