The use of abortion pills by Irish women

The issue of illegal abortion pills was raised a number of times in recent debates following the publication of the Report of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. How spread is this phenomenon?

Even if some Irish politicians seem to have discovered only recently the availability of abortifacients, those pills have been offered by online services for twelve years, since 2006.  There are two main websites selling abortion pills and I will call them WOW and WHW, to avoid publicising them. What do we know about their use?

The very few studies published on this issue have one great limitation: they are co-authored by the providers of the abortion pills and so their data cannot be verified independently.

Based on those studies, pro-abortion activists talk of three women per day, about 1,000 per year, taking those pills in Ireland, although estimates vary.  In one of my previous blog entries I have shown that even if we assume double this number of Irish women are using the abortion pill nonetheless the Irish abortion rates would still be significantly lower than nearby countries with liberal laws.

How are those pills accessible? After an online consultation, the two drugs (mifepristone and misoprostol) are dispatched by mail. This might result in seizure by the Irish customs authorities. Although obtaining those two drugs is not illegal under Irish law, using them to procure an abortion is a criminal offence. No one has ever been prosecuted, however.

There is an assumption that the abortifacients will be consumed by women in a crisis pregnancy, but they could be obtained also by a disgruntled partner, an abuser, or a sex trafficker, with the intent of procuring an abortion without the woman’s knowledge or consent.

According to WOW, the main website offering abortions pills, in recent years the number of pills ordered online has grown, and in 2016 there have been 1,748 online consultations from Ireland and Northern Ireland combined. (Note: the fact that they were ordered does not necessarily mean they arrived and were used effectively.)

This upward trend is somehow in contrast with data provided to the Medical Independent by a more reliable source, i.e. the Health Products Regulations Authority (HPRA). According to those figures, the number of tablets detained in 2016 (536) was almost half of those detained in 2014 (1,017). In 2015 the number was 850. It is that the number of pills ordered has, in fact, declined, or it is that the authorities are not so diligent anymore about apprehending them?

It is interesting to note that according to the statistics based on self-reports, the majority (54.3%) of requests come from women who have used contraception. The final Report of the Joint Oireachtas committee noticed this (even if they got the figure wrong) while at the same time, paradoxically, recommended free contraception to avoid crisis pregnancies.

The alleged growing use of abortion pills has been presented as an argument to regulate the practice, rather than to prohibit it. But the same could be said about any kind of illegal substance currently available on the internet or from criminal dealers. Obviously, their administration would be safer under medical control, but should we then decriminalise any kind of drug, knowing that they are harmful? Apart from the fact that they cause abortion, and therefore always harmful for the one who is killed, there are concerns for the health of the women that use them. (See this comment of the Lozier Institute about of their safety:

Moreover, according to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHPA), the number of illegal abortifacients seized in the UK has risen exponentially since 2013. This proves that even if Ireland had the same abortion regime of the United Kingdom, the problem of illegally obtaining abortion pills won’t necessarily disappear. In fact, the main organisation that sends abortifacient pills to Ireland (WOW) offers the same service even in countries where abortion is legal, such as the UK.

BPAS, the main abortion providers in the UK, are campaigning to make the domestic use of those pills legal. If abortion is normalised in Ireland, soon or later there will be a similar call here.