Page last updated at 04:28 GMT, Friday, 11 July 2008 05:28 UK

Women 'using web for abortions'

By Jane Dreaper
Health correspondent, BBC News

Computer mouse
There are concerns about abortion on the web

Some women in countries where abortion is restricted are using the internet to buy medication enabling them to abort a pregnancy at home, the BBC has learned.

Women in Northern Ireland and over 70 countries with restrictions have used one of the main websites, Women on Web.

A British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology review of 400 customers found nearly 11% had needed a surgical procedure after taking the medication.

The website says it can help reduce the problems linked with unsafe abortions.

'Stressful experience'

But anti-abortion campaigners called the development of such sites "very worrying indeed".

The research into those who had used Women on Web found that about 8% did not end up using the medication they had ordered.

Almost 11% went on to need a surgical procedure - either because the drugs had not completed the abortion or because of excessive bleeding.

I think it's very important women have this resource to turn to in that situation
Women on Web customer

Almost 200 women answered questions about their experiences - 58% said they were just grateful to have been able to have had an abortion in this way, while 31% had felt stressed but found the experience acceptable.

Women on Web posts the drugs only to countries where abortion is heavily restricted, and to women who declare they are less than nine weeks' pregnant.

A US woman, who has a rare medical complication meaning pregnancy is life-threatening to her, described her experience when she used the website while in Thailand.


"Women on Web kept in contact with me via e-mail. The medication arrived through Customs, properly blister-packed, with complete paperwork and a doctor's signature.

"Medication from other websites came in unmarked bottles with no instructions or paperwork - it was quite frightening.

"I was not very far along - only three or four weeks. It went smoothly for me.

"I think it's very important women have this resource to turn to in that situation - and they can need it for a number of reasons."

'Reputable site'

The Family Planning Association in Northern Ireland has had several calls from women considering buying abortion pills online.

Northern Ireland was not included in the 1967 Abortion Act, which liberalised access to termination on the mainland.
At present a woman is generally given an abortion if she has a serious medical or psychological problem that endangers her life if she continues with her pregnancy, has severe learning difficulties, or if doctors detect foetal abnormalities.
Social abortions are less easily accessible, although critics say the law lacks clarity.

The FPA said that on two occasions, women bought drugs without appropriate medical information. They experienced complications and needed aftercare.

Northern Ireland FPA director Audrey Simpson said: "The Women On Web site is very helpful and reputable.

"But for Northern Ireland women, it is encouraging them to break the law - and as an organisation, we have to work within the law.

"We're really concerned about women accessing the rogue sites - we're hearing about it and we know it's happening.

"There are potentially serious medical complications for women from sites which aren't well managed and this could be the new era of backstreet abortions."

Anti-abortion campaigners said they were appalled by such websites.

Josephine Quintavalle, from the group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: "This is very worrying indeed. It represents further trivialisation of the value of the unborn child.

"It's like taking abortion into the shadows. These drugs have side-effects and tragedies will increase."

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