Can Women Safely Take Abortion Pills At Home?

Henrietta Strickland
May 19, 2017

Early medical abortion using online telemedicine can offer an alternative to unsafe methods to end a pregnancy for women in countries where access to safe abortion is restricted, finds a study published by The BMJ today.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Aiken and an global team of researchers reveal how they probed the outcomes for women in Ireland and Northern Ireland who had sought the abortion drugs mifepristone and misoprostol through Women on Web - a digital community that provides medical consultations, abortion drugs and online support.

Abortion is illegal in the Republic as well as Northern Ireland in all but a limited number of circumstances and women who can not afford to travel to the Britain to access a legal abortion often order abortion pills online. Women from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland who wish to undergo an abortion have few options at their disposal to end the pregnancy.

The service was provided by campaign group Women on Web, which asks patients 25 questions before sending them the pills, giving instructions and advice. "More and more people contacting us are expressing fear of criminal prosecution", she said, adding that women should beware of online scammers when searching for abortion pills. Online telemedicine has made the latter more appealing and drastically improved abortion access for Irish women.

Roughly 9 percent of the women said they experienced some kind of symptom for which they were told to seek medical help by their online counselors ― and among those women, 95 percent did. "Finally, given the trajectory of abortion policy in Europe and the United States, the visibility and importance of self-sourced medical abortion will continue to increase".

In an accompanying editorial, Wendy Norman, MD, of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and Bernard M. Dickens, PhD, of the University of Toronto wrote that the study reports "the best safety evidence to date for self-sourced medical abortion through telemedicine for women living where high quality healthcare is accessible but legal abortion is not".

The findings also reveal that women were able to identify potentially serious complications and seek medical attention when advised to do so.

In the Republic of Ireland, taking drugs to induce an abortion carries up to a 14-year prison sentence.

The data showed 94.7% of women were able to successfully terminate their pregnancy without surgical intervention.

Abortions in these two states are allowed only to save a woman's life or her physical or mental health.

Aiken and Princeton University researcher James Trussell over three years studied 1,000 women who sought an abortion through Women on Web.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty's Northern Ireland campaigns manager, told the Belfast Telegraph: "Health and justice are devolved but it is a UK Government responsibility to fulfil its worldwide human rights obligations". "Firstly, they clearly show that not at all abortions taking place outside the law are unsafe abortions".

"It's important that when we think about online abortion it isn't necessarily a scary and risky process - one thing this study shows is that self-sought abortion can be a network of people and organisations providing advice and support". "The reported prevalence of adverse events is low, and, critically, when women reported experiencing symptoms of a potentially serious complication, nearly all reported seeking medical attention as advised".

"F$3 or the first time in history, women of all social classes in a legally restricted yet high resource setting have equitable access to a reasonable alternative", they wrote. But others say that women should never be left alone to carry out the procedure.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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