State’s women face jail for taking abortion pill

Analysis: There has yet to be a prosecution in the Republic along the lines of Belfast case

The abortion medication taken by a woman who was given a suspended jail sentence in Belfast Crown Court on Monday is prohibited in the Republic too. Photograph: Stephen Hird/Reuters

There has yet to be a prosecution – as far as we know – of a woman or girl in this State for taking the abortion pill.

The young woman who received a suspended sentence in Belfast for importing the abortifacient drugs – mifepristone and misoprostol – had been charged under section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act, which dates back to 1861.

According to it, any woman or girl convicted of taking a “poison” to “procure her own miscarriage” faces being “kept in penal servitude for life”.

In this State, the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act repealed section 58 of the 1861 Act, replacing it with a prison sentence of up to 14 years for anyone unlawfully procuring an abortion here.


Anyone who helps a woman or girl to unlawfully procure an abortion can face a similar sentence.

The abortion medication, as taken by the woman in Belfast, is illegal this side of the Border too.

These drugs, which are safe to take under medical supervision and are widely used in other jurisdictions, are not the morning-after pill, which is legal in the Republic.

While the morning-after pill prevents a fertilised egg from implanting in the womb if taken within 72 hours of intercourse, abortifacients induce the miscarriage of an implanted zygote/embryo/ foetus if taken up to 70 days after the woman’s last period.

The woman at the centre of the Belfast case was 19 when she decided to purchase the abortion pills over the internet.

She could not afford to travel to England, Scotland or Wales for an abortion, which she would have been legally entitled to there, and indeed would have been entitled to for free on the NHS if she had been a resident of the UK “mainland”.

Her actions were uncovered when her flat mates found the bloodstained materials she had likely used to clean herself while she miscarried alone, and a 10-12- week-old foetus, in the bin. They reported their discovery to the police.

Once it was reported to them, the PSNI had little choice but to investigate and, once the male foetus was established as having been borne by her, to charge and prosecute her.


The number of seizures of abortion pills arriving into this State in the post by the Health Regulatory Authority, working with customs officials, indicates that increasing numbers of women and girls are turning to the internet when facing a crisis pregnancy.

While 635 tablets, in 28 packages, were seized in 2011, the numbers had almost doubled, to 1,017 tablets, in 60 importations, in 2014.

The majority are coming through Netherlands-based sites and cost about €90. This compares with a cost of €600-€1,000 for an abortion, not including travel and accommodation costs.

Should a concerned citizen in this State know of a woman or girl inducing her own abortion, they too might report her to An Garda Síochána, though how gardaí would respond to a woman in this situation remains to be seen.

If gardaí were to investigate and charge her under Irish law, it is probable that she would be convicted and could face up to 14 years in prison.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times