The announcement of a dedicated helpline offering medical advice to people who are having illegal terminations has been described as a “publicity stunt” by an anti-abortion group.
The Evangelical Alliance was reacting to news that the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has established phone lines in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and the Isle of Man to deal specifically with inquiries from women who have taken abortion drugs ordered via the internet.
Having an abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland except in cases where the woman’s life or health is at stake.
Despite the fact that women can theoretically face a life sentence if convicted, the practice of obtaining illegal abortions using such pills is believed to be widespread.
One 21-year-old woman from Belfast who had used such internet-bought drugs was given a three-month suspended jail term this year after pleading guilty to procuring her own abortion by using a poison, and supplying a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage.
BPAS said that women who do not have the money to travel to the UK mainland for an abortion – where they are much more readily available than in Northern Ireland – have “no choice but to break the law and order pills over the internet”.
It said it has set up the helplines for women who “are concerned about any symptoms or simply want to speak to someone”.
In response, Evangelical Alliance spokeswoman Dawn McAvoy said: “This would appear to be a publicity stunt from a group campaigning to decriminalise abortion.
“This service is operating in a legally grey area and we await more details before deciding whether we need to write to the attorney general about this matter.”
She added that medical advice should more properly be sought from a GP or from a midwife.
Breedagh Hughes, from the Royal College of Midwives, said that if anyone had taken such pills with a view to having an abortion, and then divulged this to a medical professional, they would then be obliged to report the matter to the police.
While BPAS said pills provided by two groups – Women Help Women and Women on Web – were “safe and effective”, the Royal College of Midwives advises against obtaining online pills in general.
“We understand why the women here would resort to that,” said Ms Hughes.
“We’d advise them not to.
“But at the end of the day it’s their choice, and if they do we’d then advise them to seek medical attention urgently if they have any untoward symptoms.”