Illustration by Grace Wilson
An exclusive Broadly investigation shows that the Irish government is seizing ever-increasing quantities of vital abortion medicines—with potentially devastating consequences for women.
Irish regulators are seizing an increasing number of abortion pills entering the country, denying thousands of women access to basic reproductive care. Exclusive figures obtained by Broadly under the Freedom of Information Act from the Republic of Ireland's Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) demonstrate the extent of the country's war on women.
Data between 2011 and 2015 shows that authorities intercepted a total of 3,467 tablets shipped and labeled as misoprostol and mifepristone, two drugs commonly used to induce a medical abortion. All of the pills will have been urgently needed by an Irish woman or girl. Many could have been forced to continue to with a pregnancy as a result of the confiscation.
Seizures of pills have increased in the past five years. In 2011, 653 tablets were confiscated. By 2015, this figure rose by 36 percent to 890 tablets. Shockingly, the number of pills seized in the post increased by 132 percent between 2013 and 2014, resulting in 1,107 tablets of misoprostol and mifepristone detained by the authorities.
Ireland is one of the few European countries that deny its female citizens access to abortion in all circumstances (except to save her life), despite a United Nations ruling that access to abortion is a human right. Although misoprostol and mifepristone was added to the World Health Organization's list of "essential medicines" in 2008, they remain illegal in the country.
As a direct result of the Irish government's policy of intercepting abortion medicine, two providers no longer send pills to the Republic of Ireland. Women on Web director Rebecca Gomperts confirmed in an email to Broadly that the organization stopped shipping to the Republic of Ireland in 2009, when customs began intercepting its packages. Safe2Choose also confirmed that it is no longer able to post to women living there.
"We have tried delivering to Ireland, but our package was seized by the authorities as well," a spokesperson writes. "We are closely monitoring the unfolding of recent pro-choice movements in the country and we hope that it will bring Irish women more autonomy and grant them the right over their bodies."
Another provider, Women Help Women, would not confirm that it currently posts abortion pills to Republic of Ireland postcodes for fear of putting their service users at legal risk. "We can help every woman that contacts us—including from Ireland—to identify the safe option," said Women Help Women spokesperson Kinga Jelinska.
Despite the misinformation spread by anti-abortion activists, misoprostol and mifepristone are medically safe when obtained from a reputable source and administered correctly. While non-profit suppliers continues to openly ship to Ireland, there is no guarantee that unscrupulous providers might ship defective medicines to desperate women turning online in search of reproductive healthcare. Kits containing misoprostol and mifepristone can retail for up to $200 online, depending which online pharmacy you purchase from (Women on Web asks for donations of between €70-90).
Advocates have warned of fake sites taking payment for abortion pills which never arrive—or worse, sending ineffective or even dangerous medication. Gomperts tells me that Women on Web were scammed a decade ago when attempting to purchase abortion medication from a now-defunct website, and even points me towards a fake Polish mirror of the actual Women on Web site.
Vulnerable and desperate people have always been easy pickings for malign operators, and pregnant Irish women are no exception. "So often women will call me," says Mara Clarke of the Abortion Support Network, "and the pills have never arrived." The delays can push women past the nine to ten-week limit for medical abortion, meaning women are forced to travel internationally for costly—and emotionally arduous—surgical procedures.
Protesters on a pro-choice march in Ireland. Photo courtesy of the Irish Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC)
But despite the zealousness of Irish customs officials in intercepting misoprostol and mifepristone, a representative of the HPRA confirmed to Broadly that it doesn't even bother to chemically test the confiscated pills.
When I asked the HPRA how it could accurately tell what drugs were being seized, a spokesperson explained that the agency went off the labelling of the pills—they weren't sending them to laboratories to confirm their composition.
Every packet confiscated is a distraught pregnant person.
If the HPRA tested the medication, they would be able to send out vital warnings about the quality of the supplies being intercepted—meaning that women would be alerted to potentially defective or mislabelled batches entering the country.
However, Irish authorities continue to defend their policy under the rubric of protecting women's health. "There are significant public health concerns associated with the purchase of prescription medicines over the internet," explains a spokesperson for the Irish Department of Health. "There is no guarantee as to the safety, quality, or efficacy of medicines purchased online. Medicines purchased in this manner are often found to be counterfeit and/or with inaccurate labelling or product information."
"We're not surprised to see an increase in the number of packets of abortion pills being intercepted," explains Janet O'Sullivan of the Abortion Rights Campaign. "We know that more women who are in a crisis pregnancy are choosing to end a pregnancy at home and are ordering the pills online."
Watch: The Abortion Pill
There is a very real human cost to the seizure policy, O'Sullivan adds: "Every packet confiscated is a distraught pregnant person who has been pushed to ordering medications online, which they should be able to access via their own physician, as in the case in most of the rest of Europe."
According to the FOI data, women are also moving away from misoprostol-only abortions and towards abortions induced by a combination of misoprostol and mifepristone. The combination is generally recognized to provide a superior clinical outcome, and the data indicates more women are becoming aware of this fact. In 2011, only 15 mifepristone pills were intercepted by customs: By 2015, 124 tablets contained mifepristone, resulting in a 727 percent increase.
"It's interesting that some shipments contained more than one mifepristone tablet," explains Professor Sally Sheldon of the University of Kent. "It suggests women are attempting to import more pills than they'd need for their immediate use, as the standard treatment protocol only requires one tablet of mifepristone." Women might be stockpiling the medicine, she says speculatively, although it's impossible to say why—it could be for friends, or as a backup in case the first set of pills don't work.
"The relatively greater proportion of mifepristol tablets suggests that more women may be becoming aware that this is a better treatment protocol," Sheldon adds.
Despite the increase in the interception of abortion pills, women from the Republic of Ireland are still finding ways to access the medicine. Women on Web still ships to Northern Ireland, and the organization says that many people simply travel across the border to collect pills from friends. A 2016 study of its clients found 1,181 women from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland who were able to successfully obtain abortion pills between 2010 and 2012 by shipping them to Northern Ireland.
However, the consequences of the HPRA's increasingly aggressive policy of confiscating abortion pills remain immense. There's a real danger that Irish women may resort to dangerous back alley methods if deprived of safe and affordable ways of terminating pregnancy. Study after study has shown denying women abortion access doesn't end abortion: It drives the practice underground.
"You can do what you like to stop women from having abortions," Clare Murphy of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service warns. "You can have the most restrictive laws in the world. But women will find a way. And women in Ireland are having abortions."
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