Women on Web a viable alternative for Irish women seeking abortions

The online service has created a makeshift support network for those experiencing the trials and tribulations of an unwanted pregnancy.

InDepthIf you’ve spent any time on campus, you’ve probably noticed the vast amount of red and white stickers advertising ‘’Free Abortion Pills Online’’. Stickers with the familiar red dot and unusual offer have been stuck in almost every public space and female toilet currently in use on campus since the beginning of Michaelmas 2014. But perhaps even more striking than the vast amount of stickers that have appeared since the start of the year is the controversy that has erupted over what they advertise.

I doubt there exists a Women on Web sticker on campus that hasn’t been vandalised beyond recognition, with the all-important web addresses scratched off, only to be scrawled in again across the undamaged parts of the sticker soon after. Other individuals have written entries on their experiences with the website, encouraging their peers to turn to the website in times of need, while some have sent out warnings of the dangers of using internet bought medications. All of this is taking place within the confines of each individual sticker.

It is difficult to say who is in the right. Indeed, the purchase and use of abortion pills is a little like a game of Russian roulette. The client will not know the result until she has actually used the pills, and any number of outcomes are possible with regards to side effects and complications. The legal repercussions that may arise are also unclear, especially in a country with such restrictive laws as Ireland. Mysteries abound as to what the truth is behind this enigmatic website womenonweb.org.

What is Women on Web?

Womenonweb.org was founded by Dutch doctor and abortion activist Rebecca Gomperts. Before the website, Gomperts worked from a boat which boasted a licensed abortion clinic onboard, performing medical abortions on passengers using mifepristone and misoprostol, which is what the website now delivers to clients. The website defines itself as an international support network for women in need of abortion, as well as those recovering from one. This comes across in the composition of the site, as it is split up into two sections: the “I need an abortion” section and the “I had an abortion” section.

When you click on the “I need an abortion” tab you are referred to a page with all the relevant information for carrying out a medical abortion. Accordingly, you can only acquire the medications if 1) you live in a country where abortion is restricted 2) if you are under nine weeks pregnant, as the abortion must be carried out before the end of the first trimester to reduce the chance of complications and 3) you have no severe illnesses. You are then referred to a licensed doctor in an online consultation who will ask the client ‘’approximately 25 questions’’ to assess if they have any contraindications or an episcopal pregnancy. According to an August 2014 New York Times article by Emily Bazelon, Women on Web uses five licensed doctors who work part time for the website, and apparently, these are the doctors that one converses with before a prescription is given.

And the medication?

The advertisement of ‘’free abortion pills online’’ presents a contradiction. Following the consultation with the online doctor, the client is asked to donate anything between €70 and €90 in order for the service to continue to operate as it does. Of course, the real question is, what is the donation paying for exactly?

As outlined above, Women on Web provides the patient with a combination of two pills, mifepristone and misopristol. Mifepristone has an illegal status in Ireland, whereas misopristol is tightly regulated, and for these reasons, many Irish women organize an address in Northern Ireland in order to collect the pills as to avoid problems arising with customs.

The pills work by inducing a miscarriage, and according to the website, its effects are in no way different to the effects of an ordinary spontaneous miscarriage that occurs in 15-20% of pregnancies.

However, according to an Irish Times article by Carol Ryan on the issue of medical abortion, in 2009, bulk portions of mifepristone and misopristol were seized by the authorities, indicating that an Irish medical abortion market was, and still could be, operating in Ireland today.

The pills work by inducing a miscarriage, and according to the website, its effects are in no way different to the effects of an ordinary spontaneous miscarriage that occurs in 15-20% of pregnancies. In instances of incomplete abortion or other complications, the website has discovered a sort of loophole in navigating the legal landscape of countries where abortion is banned completely or extremely restricted.

For example, in the FAQ section of the website, it is recommended that in cases where medical attention is needed, that the patient should testify to their doctor that they have had a miscarriage rather than have induced an abortion should legal issues arise. For this reason, the service has also recommended that the protocol for taking the medication should be to dissolve the misopristol dosage under their tongue, rather than via a pessary as any evidence of usage will disappear in a matter of hours rather than a few days.

Women on Web states that the pills have been “thoroughly researched and recommended by the World Health Organization” and have been placed on the Model List of Essential Medicines, due to the fact that thousands of women die from unsafe abortion procedures every year. According to the WHO, 21.6 million women worldwide experience an unsafe abortion each year with 47,000 of these dying as a result of complications from an unsafe abortion. These deaths make up 13% of all maternal deaths.

What happens when you perform a medical abortion?

The ‘’I had an abortion’’ section of the website is full of testimonies from users all over the world. Through this, Women on Web has created a makeshift support network for those experiencing the trials and tribulations of an unwanted pregnancy or the decision to have an abortion. In total, there are 30 testimonies hailing from Ireland, by women of different ages and of different socio-economic backgrounds and situations, all with equally unique experiences of the drugs.

According to the website, the typical response to the pills is that of prolonged bleeding for up to three weeks accompanied by painful cramps. However other side effects may occur and are indeed common, such as nausea, fever, hot flashes and headaches. These effects normally occur just a few hours after taking the pills.

Of the many testimonies that are available, most, if not all have, had a positive experience with the medical abortion service provided by the pills.

The website also boasts a section on the risk of complications in line with how far into the pregnancy the pills have been taken. As aforementioned, the sooner the better and the pills will not be provided after the nine-week mark, as they are in fact sourced in India and will not arrive before the end of the first trimester otherwise. If they are taken before nine weeks, the risk is relatively low at 2% facing complications. However, as it seems complications do indeed arise, the website stipulates that the purchaser not be more than 60 minutes away from medical assistance.

Of the many testimonies that are available, most, if not all have, had a positive experience with the medical abortion service provided by the pills. Indeed, what is interesting is the lack of negative experiences and also the lack of testimonies on websites that are not associated  with Women on Web in some way.

Women on Web has stated on their website that they receive “thousands of emails from women all over the world every day’’ searching for support, but upon contact with organisations such as the Irish Family Planning Association or Irish pro-choice campaigns, no information is available on the amount of Irish women that actually avail of the service, and perhaps understandably due to the legality of using the pills.

The women giving the testimonies all give varying results, with some declaring it a ‘’comfortable experience lasting only a week’’, while another woman declared it ‘’the worst pains imaginable’’. When asked what they felt following the procedure, most answered that they experienced feelings of sadness and guilt but realised that it was their best option. The majority of cases stated that the results lasted only a week  but with some cases lasting longer, up to three or four weeks. None of the Irish cases detailed any complications.

Abortion itself may be illegal on Irish soil but it is completely legal for women to know their options and travel abroad to avail of the service. The procedure is expensive, though. According to the Irish Family Planning Association, a surgical abortion can cost anywhere between €600 and €2,000 not including travel and accommodation costs.Due to the simple fact of cost, it’s not feasible for many Irish women, especially students, to travel for a safe abortion. For many, Women on Web might well be the best option for many Irish women looking for support for an unwanted pregnancy.