Study finds that online abortion pills supplied in Northern Ireland are overwhelmingly safe and effective

A study carried out by the University of Texas, published today in the British Medical Journal, has found that in 95 percent of cases, women in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland who used online purchased abortion pills safely ended their pregnancies and did not require medical attention, and none of those who did require medical attention had any serious lasting side-effects. The British Humanist Association (BHA) has welcomed these findings as further evidence that the stringent restrictions on the use of abortion pills, which remains an imprisonable offense throughout the UK, have failed to keep pace with medical developments and need to be repealed.

The study looked at data from 1,000 women between 2010 and 2012, who were less than ten weeks pregnant and had used the drugs misoprostol and mifepristone, both of which are used in abortions provided by the NHS. During this time period 1,636 women were covertly sent these drugs from just one online supplier, Women on Web.

950 of the respondents reported that their abortion was successful, with only a minority reporting to have experienced medical complications. These figures are broadly in line with the number of women who suffer complications after a medical abortion which was supervised by a doctor. The overwhelming majority of women who experienced complications sought medical attention and this was always successful. This study clearly indicates that online abortion advice and pills are safe for women to use and arguments for their restriction on the basis of safety concerns are unfounded.  

It is estimated that 43,000 women die worldwide each year because they do not have access to safe and legal abortion.

In the UK, under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act a woman who uses such pills to induce a miscarriage can face imprisonment for life. The 1967 Abortion Act, which in England, Scotland, and Wales allows women to access abortion under the supervision of two doctors, was never adopted in Northern Ireland where abortion is only permitted if there is a serious risk to a woman’s life or physical or mental health. In the Republic of Ireland abortion is strictly prohibited in all cases, except to save the life of the woman.

This study has been published shortly before a judicial review of a decision to prosecute a mother in Northern Ireland who procured abortion pills for her daughter is due to be heard. The findings strongly support calls for the laws restricting the use of online abortion pills to be repealed and raises questions about whether it is in the public interest to pursue such prosecutions.  

BHA Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented, ‘While we welcome this study’s findings, it still doesn’t help women who have to access an abortion later on and so cannot use pills, and those women currently have to go to Britain in order to have an abortion and are charged up to £900 by the NHS. It also does not remove from women the risk of prosecution for having obtained abortion pills, as we see in a current case. Hopefully this research will only reinforce the need to end the legal injustice that women, while perhaps being able to access safe abortion pills in practice, nonetheless can face prosecution for doing so.’

Notes

For further comment or information, please contact BHA Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on richy@humanism.org.uk or 020 7324 3072.

Read more on the BHA’s campaigns around abortion: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/public-ethical-issues/sexual-and-reproductive-rights/

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

The BHA is a member of the steering group of Voice for Choice, the national pro-choice coalition, and a supporter of the We Trust Women and Back Off campaigns. Northern Ireland Humanists, which is a part of the BHA, is also on the steering group of Trust Women NI, the campaign coalition seeking abortion law reform in Northern Ireland.

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