I n 2007, a 17-year-old Irish girl, known only as ‘Miss D.’, was pregnant with a foetus suffering from anencephaly, a fatal disease. Despite the reality that the infant would survive no longer than a few hours, she was denied an abortion by the Irish Health Service, which also tried to prevent her from travelling to the UK to terminate her pregnancy.
This was just one of many cases in Ireland where abortion is illegal. Similar examples can be found in some parts of the USA, where last year the state of Oklahoma tried to pass a law that would see abortion providers face three years in prison.
The difficulties facing women with unwanted pregnancies has led to a growth in telemedicine or so-called ‘Internet abortions’ - sites that provide medication for women during the early stages of pregnancy (less than 10 weeks). The treatment is banned in Ireland and the USA.
Women on Web (WOW) is a multilingual, online help desk that provides support for women who live in countries where abortion is restricted. The WOW site also refers users to a doctor, who can supervise a termination via the Internet through the use of abortion pills.
A study, conducted by Abigail Aike of the University of Texas and collaborators in several other countries, analysed WOW data using a sample of 1,000 women from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. They found that from 2010-2012, nearly 95% of users successfully terminated their pregnancy; only 5% had resorted to surgical intervention in order to end their pregnancy. Crucially, the rate of complications for pill-use was very similar to that of women using the abortion pill with the help of doctors in GP consultation, in countries where abortion is less restricted.
There were also difficulties: nearly 10% of women were referred for further treatment by local doctors because of symptoms related to the pregnancy’s termination, 26 needed antibiotics for infection problems and seven respondents needed a blood transfusion. Nonetheless, Dr. Aiken concluded that “self-sourced medical abortions using online telemedicine can be highly effective, and outcomes compare favourably”.
Nevertheless, the debate about abortion is sure to continue.