Medical abortion in Northern Ireland – a response to poor BBC reporting


On Thursday 27th October 2016 the BBC reported that another woman in Northern Ireland has been charged with using abortion pills. The article said almost nothing about the circumstances of the case, but included false and biased information about the risks of abortion medication and omitted important facts from experts and reputable sources.

This briefing, clarifying the facts about medical abortion, draws on a complaint made to the BBC by Marge Berer of the International Campaign for a Woman’s Right to Safe Abortion. You can make an online complaint to the BBC here, or phone 03700 100 222.


Assertion: There are now warnings that women are putting their health at risk by taking abortion pills bought online.

FACT: Medical abortion pills are extremely safe. They are one of several methods of abortion recommended by the World Health Organization and on the WHO Essential Medicines List. While there are dubious sources of the pills online, there are also a number of bona fide sources, which most women are using.

When drugs are seized by N. Ireland customs, or women are prosecuted for buying or using them the source and safety of the drugs is not investigated because women’s criminality, not their safety, is the key concern of Northern Ireland law enforcement.


Assertion: The drugs cause blood loss and some people are likely to need treatment if they use them.

FACT: Medical abortion pills are intended to cause an abortion, so they do cause blood loss, but not in the way this journalist implies. The great majority of women who use the pills do not need treatment.

If Northern Ireland had an abortion service, providing reassurance, follow up advice and treatment would be part of its remit as it is for services in other parts of the UK.

The same drugs are used across the UK to treat incomplete miscarriage and women use them safely at home.


Assertion: “a number of women will actually require a blood transfusion.”

FACT: This is very rare – affecting fewer than 1 in 1000 women having an abortion before 13 weeks, according to guidance from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists 


Assertion: “There are risks associated with this drug’s use,” said Dr Paul McCague of the School of Pharmacy at Queen’s.

FACT: There are risks associated with every approved medication on the market and in pharmacies. The implication here is that abortion medication is particularly risky. In fact, abortion using medical abortion pills is one of the safest known medical procedures.


Assertion: “Of particular concern with this drug would be the heavy bleeding which is a relatively common adverse effect.”

FACT: Bleeding is a central aspect of medical abortion, not an adverse effect.  In the rest of the UK women can seek help – without the fear of prosecution – if they have concerns about the extent of bleeding following medical abortion.


Assertion: “in recent months campaigners have staged a series of stunts…”

FACT: People demonstrating for the right to safe abortion in Northern Ireland have undertaken a range of activities to draw attention to abortion prosecutions and to the lack of NHS funding for women in Northern Ireland who are forced to travel to the mainland for abortions. Actions have included people handing themselves into police stations, risking prosecution themselves for using or supplying abortion medication.

However, criticisms of the total abortion prohibition in Northern Ireland have also come from the United Nations Human Rights Committee, a High Court Judge in Northern Ireland, a range of civil society groups in Northern Ireland, and politicians in both Stormont and Westminster.


Assertion: “There are fears that many who order pharmaceuticals online cannot be sure what they will receive.”

FACT: The article fails to mention that there are three international web-based distance medicine providers who supply bona fide medical abortion pills along with counselling and access to help if needed.


Assertion: A police statement said: “The PSNI has a statutory duty under Section 32 of the Police (NI) Act 2000 to protect life…”

 FACT:The police in this instance are clearly interpreting this to mean the life of the fetus, although fetal life is not specified in the Act


Assertion: A statement from the Department of Justice stated that “The current law prohibits the use of abortion drugs throughout the UK,”

FACT: In fact abortion medication mifepristone was licensed for use in Britain in 1991 and is routinely prescribed to women within the terms of the 1967 Abortion Act. In 2015 medical abortion comprised 45% of all abortions carried out in England and Wales and over 80% in Scotland (in 2014).


The bulk of the article emphasises that self-use of medical abortion pills is illegal under an archaic law that was passed in 1861: a law that was modified by the Abortion Act in the rest of the UK nearly 50 years ago, and which many people in the UK believe should be removed from the statute books entirely.

The second half stresses how many people including MLAs in Northern Ireland are anti-abortion, but doesn’t mention the cohort of pro-choice MLAs, or opinion polls which show an increasing majority of people support abortion reform.