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Critics slam "safe" abortion pill study: It's flawed and puts women at risk

18 May 2017

An abortion pill is never "safe" for the unborn child, and often not for the woman. Image: Shutterstock 

A study published in the British Medical Journal has claimed that self-inducing abortion using illegal pills obtained online is a safe and effective way of ending a pregnancy. However, critics have questioned the methodology of the study, with one scholar saying it "should have been thrown out in peer review".

"Self reported outcomes and adverse events after medical abortion through online telemedicine” was published online on May 16, and tracked the outcomes of some 1,000 women in Ireland and Northern Ireland who used the Netherlands based website Women on Web to obtain abortion pills, also known as RU-486. Women on Web is linked to Women on Waves, an abortion boat that sails around performing abortion in international waters, next to countries where abortion is illegal, such as Guatemala

Highly effective?

The mainstream media has been repeating the study’s conclusion that the data provides the "best evidence to date that self-sourced medical abortion through online telemedicine is highly effective, with low rates of complications."

However, critics say that the study lacks rigorous scientific standards for data collection. "The main problem with this study is that of the 1600 women who self-induced medical abortions without medical supervision, 600 (over 30 percent) did not respond to a follow-up survey," said Michael J. New, Visiting Associate Professor of Economics at Ave Maria University and an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. "There is a good chance that women who did not follow up were more likely to experience medical complications than those women who were happy to participate."

Professor New also called the study "not particularly rigorous."

"It looks at the health outcomes from a group of 1,000 women who performed medical abortions at home. It does not compare these women to another group of women who had medical abortions under medical supervision," he said.

Lack of basic information

Dr. Donna Harrison, associate scholar and executive director of American Association of Pro-life Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, also questioned the data used in the study. "There is a surprising lack of basic medical information, and all of the information is self-reported," she said. "There is not even any confirmation that the women who took the drugs were actually pregnant – no confirmatory urine or blood test by a medical professional, no ultrasound, no confirmation of any basic data. And, there is no report of how many women confirmation of any of the self-reported complications. There is not even any way to tell if women died. Seriously? This study should have been thrown out in peer review."

Conflict of interest

Two of the study's authors, Rebecca Gomperts and Irena Digol, are listed as being affiliated with the Women on Web International Foundation, which supplied all the data. Chuck Donovan, president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, said: "Both the source of the study data and the accompanying commentary explicitly push the envelope by encouraging illegal do-it-yourself abortions. This study reeks of bias and flagrant disregard for protective laws."


Even the study's own evidence does not necessarily point to the conclusion that self inducing abortion is "safe". Dr New explains: "Among those women who did respond, more than 9 percent reported symptoms and care-seeking for potentially serious complications, such as bleeding, fever, and persistent pain. Seven women needed a blood transfusion and 26 required antibiotics. The authors admit the rate of blood transfusions and antibiotic receipt were higher among women who performed medical abortions without medical supervision."

Arina Grossu, Director of the Family Research Council’s Center for Human Dignity, also questioned the safety of abortion pills. "Women on Web has no regard for women's health and safety...No doctor actually examines the woman to see how far along she actually is or what her conditions are. If the woman is farther along than she thinks, she runs a higher risk of complications and hospitalization." Ms Grossu adds that even the study found that the older the baby was, the "higher the risk of an incomplete abortion needing surgical intervention [was], doubling for the women who were 7-9 weeks along compared to those who were less than 7 weeks along."

Inciting the killing of children

Women on Web, and Women Help Women, another organisation which recently launched a website encouraging DIY abortions, also do not take into account the severe psychological trauma that can result from a medical abortion. Nor do they give any consideration to the life of the baby. Bernadette Smyth of Precious Life, a group in Northern Ireland, where much of the data was obtained, said: "First and foremost, abortion remains a criminal offence in Northern Ireland. These despicable websites that are inciting women to break the law and kill their unborn children must be investigated and shut down."

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