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Study finds Irish women who access medication abortion online report relief, gratitude

Women from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland who obtained medication abortion via a web service reported feelings of gratitude and relief that they were able to access the medication online, according to a study published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, The Guardian reports (Boseley, The Guardian, 10/17).

Background

Northern Ireland is the only region in the United Kingdom that does not operate under the 1967 Abortion Act, which means that many women in the province have to travel to other regions to obtain an abortion. Northern Ireland allows abortion only when the woman's life is in danger or there is risk of permanent, serious damage to the woman's physical or mental health.

Those who violate the restriction can face lifetime prison sentences (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/22). Northern Ireland criminalizes accessing as well as helping another person access medication abortion (BBC, 10/17).

In 2013, the Republic of Ireland legalized abortion only in cases when the procedure is needed to save a woman's life, including when there is a medical consensus that a woman would commit suicide if the pregnancy continued. However, the law does not allow abortions in other instances, including rape, incest, fetal anomaly or when the fetus has no chance of survival. Providers who offer abortion care outside the law's limitations are subject to a 14-year prison sentence (Women's Health Policy Report, 9/27).

The bans have driven thousands of women from both countries to England to obtain abortion care. Since 2006, the organization Women on Web has enabled women to order medication abortion online. According to The Guardian, officials have blocked the packages in the Republic of Ireland, so residents have to travel to Northern Ireland to collect the medication deliveries (The Guardian, 10/17).

Demographics of women using Women on Web

According to the researchers, 5,650 women from either country received medication abortion from Women on Web between 2010 and 2015. The researchers said that women ages 30 to 34 made up 25.8 percent of Women on Web users and women ages 25 to 29 made up 24.1 percent. The age groups that comprised the smallest percentage of the total population were women under age 20, at 4.6 percent of the population, and women over 45, at 2.6 percent of the population.

The study found about two-thirds of women who used the site between 2013 and 2015 had at least one child (BBC, 10/17).

According to the study, 62 percent of study respondents said they sought abortion care because they were not able to cope with a child at the time.

About half of respondents, 44 percent, said they lacked the financial resources to raise a child. According to the study, many respondents seeking medication abortion online said they could not afford to travel for abortion care, take time from work or arrange childcare. "These barriers create a stark health inequity: women with financial and social resources can access offshore termination of pregnancy, while women who lack such resources cannot," the researchers wrote.

The study also found that 23 percent said they thought their family was complete, while about 30 percent cited their youth or desire to complete their education as reasons for seeking abortion care.

Women express gratitude, relief

Overall, the researchers found that 97 percent of women said they felt that obtaining medication abortion and completing it at home was right for them. Further, 98 percent said they would recommend the process to another woman under similar circumstances. Seventy percent of respondents reported feeling relief after completing the medication abortion process, making it the most common feeling, followed by satisfaction, reported by 36 percent of respondents. More than a quarter of respondents reported feeling happy and 22 percent reported feeling pleased.

Moreover, 94 percent of women expressed gratitude that they were able to access medication abortion via the Internet. One woman told the researchers, "There is no way I could have afforded to travel to England, pay for the procedure, stay in a hotel, and have someone there to support me. Thanks to this service, I was able to have a safe abortion in an environment where I felt comfortable and with my partner there to support me."

Other respondents said if they were unable to access home abortion, they would have considered suicide. "I would have had to resort to desperate measures. You will never understand how grateful I am," one woman said.

According to the researchers, women also reported anger and disappointment about the inability to access safe, legal abortion care within their own country. "It's shameful that [women seeking abortion care] are met with brick walls and judgment in our own country," one respondent said (The Guardian, 10/17).

Lead study author Abigail Aiken, an assistant professor of public affairs at University of Texas-Austin, said, "The findings of this paper contribute new and important evidence to the abortion policy debate in Northern Ireland." She noted, "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" (BBC, 10/17).