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Last Updated: Friday, 23 November 2007, 00:09 GMT
Illegal abortions still blight UK
By Penny Haslam
BBC Radio 5 Live Report

woman taking a pill
The abortion drug RU486 is illegal to sell without prescription
Illegal abortions are still taking place in the UK, a BBC undercover investigation has discovered.

Abortion has been legal in Britain for 40 years - under certain conditions a woman can terminate a pregnancy up to 24 weeks.

But the BBC has discovered pills for getting rid of unwanted pregnancies are readily available on the black market.

The BBC Radio 5 Live Report followed up on internet chat room messages left by women asking for abortion advice.

"Special herbs"

One online discussion centred on special Chinese herbs being sold in East London.

A BBC undercover reporter posing as an illegal immigrant visited several Chinese herbal shops, claiming she was six weeks' pregnant.

The third shop she went into, the Shanghai Herbal and Acupuncture Centre on Kingsland Road in east London, offered to help.

It was clear from the start that the staff - Dr Shen and Dr Wang - knew what they were doing was wrong.

"You come in this shop, you are lucky. Do you understand. My boss does't like me to do this treatment, my boss thinks it is a risk. So my boss doesn't know. You understand?" the reporter was told.

The staff sold her a herbal remedy for £40 - a mixture to drink three times a day to start a miscarriage.


A Manchester doctor told the programme that his team regularly came across patients with extensive bleeding after taking herbs.

The Chinese herbalists also advised the undercover reporter to buy another "special tablet" in case the herbs didn't work.

"If you see the bleeding, come out, that's fine, some people don't. I need to call another company, from China, [they will] deliver it to here, you understand?"

Our reporter paid £100 for this pill which turned out to be the abortion drug RU486 - illegal to sell without prescription.

Community health workers told us the issue of illegal abortion affects many women - from young British teenagers who do not trust their doctor to people who are here illegally and are frightened of being found out.

Another reason women seek out illegal terminations is cost.


Abortion is not free on the NHS for every woman. If a woman's home country does not have a reciprocal NHS agreement, or she is here illegally - then she faces bill of between £500 and £1,500.

In addition to herbs, the 5 Live Report found other ways of getting hold of abortion drugs, for instance misoprostol (Cytotec).

Our reporter met a Polish man called Robert in a West London café. She told him she was eight weeks pregnant and wanted an abortion.

As Robert handed over the pills he told her how he got them.

"They come either from Fiji islands or Turkey. The ones I have now are from Turkey, they are sent to Poland and then I have a courier who brings them from Poland to here".

He told our undercover reporter that this was not just a one-off transaction, boasting that he had smuggled the drug in many times before.

One side effect of taking abortion drugs is extensive bleeding, which if unsupervised can be dangerous.

But Robert was keen to point out that the drugs would be untraceable.

"If something happened and you had to go to hospital, the doctor will think that everything happened naturally."

The BBC reporter paid £30 for 14 tablets. This man had acted entirely illegally - not only had he peddled prescription drugs, he had broken the abortion law by aiding an abortion without a licence.

However, Robert hung up the phone when the Radio 5 Live called him to put to him the accusation.

Our investigation suggests illegal abortion activity may be widespread. A health worker in east London health worker told us she was routinely asked to get abortion drugs without prescription.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "We have no evidence that illegal abortions are being performed."

The 5 Live Report - Britain's Backstreet Abortions - can be heard on BBC Radio 5 Live on Sunday the 25 November at 11.30am. You can also download the podcast after the programme from the Radio 5 Live website.

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