Illegal abortion helpline shows law ‘unfit for purpose’

Courtney Robinson speaking in June 2016 at a rally outside Belfast High Court
Courtney Robinson speaking in June 2016 at a rally outside Belfast High Court

A new helpline for women who are illegally aborting foetuses using drugs obtained from the internet serves to show that Northern Ireland’s laws are “not fit for purpose”.

That is the view of one political campaigner, after it was revealed that a telephone hotline for Northern Irish women has now been launched by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), offering advice about taking such pills .

In the wake of the announcement, revealed on Thursday, both the PSNI and the Department for Health have warned members of the public not to take drugs which have not been prescribed to them.

Abortion (except in cases where the mother’s life or wellbeing is under threat) is illegal in Northern Ireland, and can theoretically result in a life sentence.

Earlier this year, an investigation by the News Letter revealed that the numbers of Northern Irish women travelling to Great Britain for abortions was virtually at an all-time low – possibly due to the ready availability of web-based abortion pills.

Courtney Robinson, a member of the small-scale Cross Community Labour Alternative party, said the new helpline (which is also available to women in the Republic of Ireland and Isle of Man) will provide “reassurance” for those undertaking a termination themselves.

Some campaigners have made a public show of swallowing abortion pills in an attempt to show that they are safe.

Miss Robinson said she has taken such pills herself (containing the drugs mifepristone and misoprostol, specifically), but that she was not pregnant at the time.

She said she experienced no ill-effects.

The 18-year-old – who polled 517 first-preference votes in east Belfast in the recent Assembly election, and who has previously declared that she is not afraid to break the law – said: “I think there being a need for this [helpline] service shows that these medical abortions are happening in Northern Ireland every single day, realistically.

“So I think, if anything, it highlights to the politicians in Stormont how frequently it’s happening, how much of an issue it is.

“The law isn’t fit for purpose, that’s what I’d say to be honest. The people who uphold and defend the law are the ones who say that what that’s doing is stopping abortions.”

In reality, the current law is just “pushing them to the online pills”.

When the statement announcing the new BPAS hotline was put to police, the PSNI said it was “carefully considering its contents”.

They added; “Police would like to take this opportunity to remind members of the public not to take any prescription drugs that have not been prescribed to them.”

The Department of Health meanwhile said that “taking medicines obtained through unregulated sources can put their health at serious risk”.

It added: “Prescription-only medicines should only be taken when prescribed by an appropriate practitioner and should be obtained from a registered pharmacy or other regulated source.”

It echoed a previous warning from the Royal College of Midwives, which had said that whilst the “understand” the reasons why women have turned to online pills, it advises against obtaining any such drugs through these means.

The PSNI have repeatedly shown a reluctance to act in the fact of publicity events by protestors who want to liberalise the Province’s abortion laws (see this story, for example).

In spite of the potential life tariff attached to abortion, a 21-year-old Belfast woman who was convicted this year of illegally aborting her foetus using pills was handed a three-month suspended sentence.