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Study promoting illegal home abortion pills published – just as Irish Citizens' Assembly on abortion convenes

17 October 2016


Women on the Web sells abortion pills to women in Ireland and Northern Ireland, so they can illegally abort at home. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

A study on the use of abortion pills ordered online by women in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has been published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. This coincides with the first meeting of the Citizens Assembly in the Republic of Ireland (see below).

The BBC reports that the study shows that 5650 women from both countries bought abortion pills online between 2010 and 2015. Data of the 1023 women who bought the pills between 2010-12 was analysed to examine women's satisfaction with the "service".The study used data provided by Women on the Web, which sells the pills. The website is run by Rebecca Gomperts, founder of Women on Waves, which runs an abortion clinic on board a ship, and drops abortion pills by drone in countries where abortion is illegal. Gomperts was one of the authors of the study.

Influencing Irish debate

The results of the study are already being used to try and influence the situation in Ireland. Prof Abigail Aiken, who led the study, said: "The findings of this paper contribute new and important evidence to the abortion policy debate in Northern Ireland.

"Northern Irish women have described in their own words the benefits of access to safe early medical abortion for their health, wellbeing, and autonomy. The current abortion law, which dates back to 1861, harms women by creating a climate of stigma, shame, and isolation."

Home abortions for all?

Coverage in the press is also suggesting that the findings have implications for other countries. The New Scientist has published a piece entitled "Home abortions are safe - we should let women do it themselves." The author, Clare Wilson, suggests that "even in countries such as the UK and the US, where abortion is legal, we could emulate Women on Web's approach to make terminations easier, simpler and quicker." This would be useful, she suggests, for women "who want to keep their abortion secret, such as teenagers or women in abusive relationships."

Paul Tully, general secretary of SPUC Pro-Life, said "What the press are disregarding is that this study promotes the killing of children with unsafe, illegal drugs. This so-called academic study is of no value whatsoever. The protocols used, the commercial bias and the background of the researchers all betray its pro-abortion sympathies."

Controversy at Citizens Assembly

Meanwhile, there is already controversy surrounding the Citizens' Assembly, the body of 99 randomly selected members of the public assembled to discuss, among other issues, Ireland's abortion laws. It is expected to consider whether a referendum should be held on repealing the Eighth Amendment, which protects the equal right to life of the mother and baby. It will report to the Irish parliament (the Dail) in the first half of next year.

An impartial body?

However, in addition to criticisms about the issue being outsourced away from elected representatives, there are already doubts about the impartiality of the body. Chairwoman Ms Justice Mary Laffoy said at the weekend that she is investigating a claim made by the Pro-Life Campaign that an assembly member has been expressing pro-choice views on social media. She warned that the body's integrity could be undermined if the allegation proved to be true. Cora Sherlock, of the Pro-Life Campaign, said, "A very prominent pro-choice campaigner has been tweeting about his membership of the Citizens' Assembly and how he plans to politicise it. Assuming that what he has posted is genuine, it is a very troubling development and would confirm the concerns that many people have raised about the entire process, including the selection of members.

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