British Pregnancy Advisory Service logo

27 January 2014

UK: Online abortion pills

The Daily Mirror's scare story about 'internet gangs' selling 'deadly abortion pills to desperate teen girls' needs a bit of balancing.

As part of a report about raids by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) on websites selling counterfeit drugs, the Daily Mirror has claimed that ‘pregnant British teenagers girls are buying abortion pills for as little as 78p on the internet black market’.

The article offered little evidence to support this assertion, and it is important to be clear about where there is a problem with purchasing abortion pills online.

Misoprostol is used, along with mifepristone, as part of the standard protocol for Early Medical Abortion (EMA) in Britain at gestations of 9 weeks or less. It is a safe drug that is routinely used as an abortifacient in EMA procedures worldwide, and is also used to treat stomach ulcers. In countries such as Britain, where abortion is legally available, the drugs will be prescribed by the abortion service, following a clinical consultation. In Britain, 97% of abortions are funded by the NHS, and abortion is widely accessible.

In countries where abortions are not legal, organisations such as Women on Web supply abortifacient medication, which includes misoprostol, to women following an online consultation, and they take care to supply the right drugs along with guidance on how to use them.

However, if drugs purporting to be the ‘abortion pills’ are bought over the internet black market, women have no means of knowing whether they are really misoprostol or something else. Because abortion in Britain is legal and free, there is no reason for British teenagers, or any other women, to need to buy the abortion pill online. If women buy fake drugs, they are likely to find that they do not work, or that they cause other problems.

Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said:

‘One in three women will end a pregnancy in their lifetimes but abortion sadly remains a stigmatised area of women’s reproductive healthcare. It is extremely troubling if any woman feels her only course of action is to buy this medication online to end her pregnancy. With the appalling exception of Northern Ireland, abortion in the UK is safe, free, and confidential for women, including teenagers, up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. The biggest risk when you buy online is that you don’t know what you are getting, nor what doses are needed for it to work.

‘Women should know that they can access free abortion services often without seeing their GP, and we would urge any woman considering this to contact us in total confidence for help. But there is a lesson for all of us here - it illustrates that any attempts to further restrict the already heavily regulated area of abortion will simply lead to women taking their health into their own hands. Online pills will be the backstreet abortions of the 21st century.’

Pregnant teenage girls taking deadly black market abortion pills, investigation finds. Independent, 25 January 2014

Deadly abortion pills sold to desperate teenage girls on internet for 78p. Daily Mirror, 25 January 2014

Britain’s modern-day back street abortions: Teenage girls ‘buying deadly abortion drugs online from Far East for just 78p’. Daily Mail, 25 January 2014