Why 50 years since the Abortion Act some people in Northern Ireland are still buying illegal abortions online – research explores their story

by Goretti Horgan

Today (27 April 2018) marks 50 years since the implementation of the 1967 Abortion Act. One of the main reasons it was supported in Parliament was to end practice of backstreet or self-induced abortions which was widespread, although very dangerous. Before the Act, each year, 30 or so deaths occurred and at least 30,000 women were admitted to hospital with complications.

Illegal abortions are still ongoing – it’s online and a growing phenomenon globally

256px-British_Isles_Northern_Ireland.svgHowever, the 1967 Act has never been extended to Northern Ireland meaning these women cannot access abortion in their local hospitals. Instead, they have to travel to England for a legal abortion which, since July 2017, they can access free via the NHS (until then, they had to pay privately for the procedure).

For those women who cannot or do not want to travel, the ability to obtain abortion pills via the internet has proved a real boon. While using these pills is illegal, the abortion is relatively safe – especially in comparison to the methods available before the 1967 Act.  Abortion pills comprise two different medications: mifepristone and misoprostol. Both are on the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) list of essential medicines and are used in the NHS as the main method of abortion.

Under medical supervision, with medical back-up available if required, medical abortion is extremely safe. Although feminist websites that provide abortion pills offer a telemedicine service with doctors ensuring there are no contraindications – because there is no medical support should something go wrong –, the WHO consider these abortions as “less safe”.  It is anomalous that, 50 years after the 1967 Act one part of the UK continues to have hundreds of illegal abortions each year.

What are the experiences of women using these services and how do they feel?

The ESRC Transformative Research programme has funded a comparative study of the experiences of women in Northern Ireland who have home abortions using internet-obtained pills and women in Scotland who take similar pills via the NHS. The study also includes an exploration of social attitudes towards abortion in Northern Ireland.

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The women interviewed for the study were grateful to have been able to use the pills to end an unwanted pregnancy and, for several, the pills represented a welcome alternative to older, more dangerous methods of inducing a home abortion. The process acceptable in terms of levels of pain, bleeding etc, however, the experience was still marked by high levels of fear and feelings of isolation for most interviewees.

Levels of fear and isolation were greater as women found to have induced their own abortion began to be prosecuted in 2015. Several women have either pleaded guilty or have accepted a caution for offences under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. Currently, a mother still awaits trial for obtaining pills over the internet for her 15 year old daughter; there is a pending judicial review of the decision to prosecute her.

The interview data is still being analysed as we search to explore the area in further detail, but responses from interviewees have included:

“One minute you thought, I am not bleeding enough. The next you thought, am I bleeding too much? So you weren’t… I was constantly checking my skin in the mirror. Reading over symptoms and all again. Constantly checking have I got any rashes, you know. Just panicking. Is everything going OK? Am I feeling alright?”  (Amy, mid-20s)

“… I was still too afraid to go [to hospital], because I kept thinking they’re bound to… there was still the fear of thinking, what if I am caught?”  (Lena, early 20s)

“It was incredibly lonely, very frightening. What if something goes wrong? What will I do?” (Nora, early 30s)

Overall, desperation seemed to really trump the fear:

I knew that it was illegal. I was worried… But for all the controversy now about the people being taken to court and whatever else, I never thought on that. And I don’t think it would have stopped me.”  (Joan, early 40s)

Is it right to live in this fear?

Weighing a potential threat to one’s life against the potential threat of prosecution should not be something that a woman in the UK has to do in 2018. The Department for International Development has indicated that ‘women and adolescent girls must have the right to make their own decisions about their sexual and reproductive health and wellbeing… Safe abortion reduces recourse to unsafe abortion and saves maternal lives’.

What’s the public opinion on abortion?

The normal response from Westminster governments to illegal abortion is that the legal situation reflects public opinion – the majority view in Northern Ireland is against abortion.

In a first, this ESRC-funded study has undertaken a comprehensive test of public opinion which forms part of the 2016 NI Life and Times (NILT) Survey (the NI equivalent of the British Social Attitudes Survey). More than 1,200 face-to-face interviews were carried out with adults aged 18 and over, and the results show there is very strong support for changes to law, with strongest support for cases where the life or the health of the pregnant woman is at risk, in cases of fatal and serious foetal abnormality, and where a pregnancy is a result of rape or incest.

As with most social attitudes, some conflicting views emerged in the survey:

  • In NI a clear majority (63%) agreed “It is a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion”.
  • In NI there is opposition to abortion being allowed due to loss of job or new employment, or due to not being able to afford another child.
  • In Britain however there is ‘near unanimous support (93%) for abortions when the woman’s health is endangered’, with clear majorities supporting it if the woman does not want the child (70%) or if the couple cannot afford any more children (65%).
  • Across the UK attitudes are similar, with 67% of respondents agreeing we are “exporting our problems rather than dealing with them”.

Clearly, then, there is public support for abortion law reform in Northern Ireland.


horgan-1Goretti Horgan lectures in Social Policy at Ulster University and is Policy Director at ARK. ARK is a joint Ulster University/Queen’s University, which aims to promote evidence-based policy making and to help researchers, policy-makers and the wider public understand society and politics.

Before joining the University in 2003, Goretti was a Senior Research Officer with the National Children’s Bureau, and then Save the Children. She is also a director and former chair of the Northern Ireland Anti Poverty Network. She researches and writes about child and family poverty, as well as children’s and women’s rights generally.  As explored above, she is currently the Principal Investigator on the ESRC-funded study ‘Buying abortion through the internet; exploring the social harm of criminalising abortion in Northern Ireland and the UK‘. The study hopes to cast new light on existing policy around abortion in the UK, especially Northern Ireland.

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