Abortion by web backlash begins

As reported in the Belfast Telegraph, the predictable backlash has started over the disclosure that Northern Ireland women may have been ordering abortion drugs via the Women on Web website. Apart from registering shock at being able to sign up for appropriate drugs in just fifteen minutes, neither the Bel Tel’s reporter nor any other have been able to track down a real live client. This is s surely a cue for TV to go through the whole ridiculous pantomime of tracking down and interviewing one such victim, with her face filmed dramatically in silhouette. Does anybody know if any of the reported 11% of Women on Web clients whose abortions have gone wrong are from NI or not? If so, can they legally be treated in NI or not? Why is this topic reduced to the status of a guilty secret? The “Web” story again highlights the disgraceful inadequacy of the long awaited government Guidelines it took years of struggle and legal wrangling to produce. But the Family Planning Association anticipated the problem ages ago when it took the guidelines apart….In judicial review of the then Direct Rule administration’s failure to provide adequate guidelines, the judge stated that

the Department has a duty to investigate whether adequate after care is available not merely for those who have spontaneous abortions or therapeutic abortions in Northern Ireland but for those returning from having an abortion in England.’

Does this not apply to abortion by mail order?

The FPA critique of the eventual guidelines foresaw the issue:

“The Guidance does not address the issue of desperate women purchasing some medical abortion drugs from unethical internet sites” -( though the FPA regard Women on Web as reputable). “This is an issue which fpa has had to address in recent months. Several calls have been received by fpa ’s helpline from women who are considering doing so. They have been advised about the law in Northern Ireland. On two occasions women who proceeded to purchase drugs without appropriate medical information and advice have experienced complications and have needed aftercare. The Guidance should therefore give clear directions to medical professionals as to their legal obligations with regard to providing such aftercare.”

Without such “clear directions,” should not the FPA and supporting doctors consider putting out a public call to women with abortion complications to contact them for treatment and invite charges of breaking the law? In the light of the judge’s ruling above, it’s a challenge worth making. Perhaps only then will “guidelines” emerge that are at least half humane.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London