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A look into the illegal abortion trade on social media

It took less than ten minutes to find someone willing to sell me abortion pills.

Dr. Jane* tells me she lives in Dubai but assures me the medication will arrive in the UK within days. How pregnant you are does not matter – she gives pills only after eight months.

*Warning: This article contains material that readers may find disturbing*

But I’m not in the late stages of pregnancy, and this isn’t the depths of the dark web we’re messaging on.

This is Facebook and I have Dr. Jane tells me I’m a journalist. I found her within minutes of searching the site for abortion pills.

In the past two years, six women have been tried in Britain for allegedly illegally performing their own abortions, compared to just three convictions between 1861 and 2022.

In Britain, abortions are free on the NHS, with pills used for up to ten weeks. When COVID hit, these were made available by mail.

Medical (using pills) and surgical abortions can be performed up to 24 weeks. After that, abortions can only be performed in a limited number of circumstances, such as when the mother’s life is in danger.

The number of abortions in England and Wales has risen to the highest number on record, with 251,377 by 2022. Abortion provider MSI Reproductive Choices said it believes pressures from the cost of living are combined with a lack of access to contraception through the expanded NHS. services both play “a larger role” in this.

In 2023, Carla Foster was jailed for lying to the Pills by Post program and taking abortion pills when she was 32 weeks pregnant. She spent a month in prison before an appeal changed her sentence to a suspended sentence.

But despite the increased availability of pills on the NHS through such schemes, abortion drugs are still being sold to people on social media sites without a prescription.

Using pills purchased online to terminate a pregnancy is illegal under Britain’s 1861 Abortion Act; half of the women who came to court since 2022 had obtained them this way.

The pills are found within a few clicks and are sold by people who claim to be doctors but whose credentials are almost impossible to verify.

The profile photo of Dr. Jane is of a smiling woman with a stethoscope around her neck, but that image actually comes from the website of a retina specialist in Florida.

The fake Dr. Jane told me via Messenger that she is a nurse in Dubai and smuggles the pills out of the hospital where she works.

For an early stage pregnancy this is £150. Anything over six months costs £300.

Pills can be taken for up to eight months, she says, sending graphic images of fetuses claiming to have helped them abort. Their small facial features are visible and veined, and they are clearly dead. But it is difficult to say whether she helped with the abortion.

A medical expert who looked at the images before me said it was impossible to say whether they were AI-generated or at what stage the miscarriages occurred. But they said they would question the credibility of anyone who sent these types of images as “evidence.”

“Abortion is a woman’s right. It should not be illegal,” says Dr. Jane. No woman, she claims, has ever died from pills she sold.

Eventually she stops answering my questions and when I go to message her a week later, her account is gone.

“Dr. Jane” is not an anomaly. If her account disappears, there are dozens more to choose from.

Prices for a pack of pills range from £190 to more than £300 – although a seller on Telegram says I can buy 10 “abortion kits” in bulk for £575 if I’m interested in selling them.

In contrast, the pills are actually ‘very cheap’ to buy direct from the manufacturer for the NHS and medical providers, one gynecologist tells me. One costs around 17p per tablet and the other costs £10.14 per tablet.

A woman posts in a Facebook group that she needs help. Within minutes there are multiple responses from sellers offering advice and pills. Some sellers openly post WhatsApp numbers that they use to interact directly with buyers.

After joining one of these groups, I receive a message from Layla*.

Layla’s Facebook photo is from Pinterest. With red hair, lurid eye shadow and black-rimmed lips, it gives her story a dark feeling.

I ask what she would do for someone who was over Britain’s legal limit.

Layla tells me she’s done this before, that abortion at 24 weeks will be “painful.”

“You’re going to push a baby out,” she says.

She claims to have helped a woman (not in Britain) who was 29 weeks pregnant.

Buying abortion pills from her would cost £358 because, like Dr. Jane, the price increases the later a woman is in her pregnancy. The money is paid through GCash, a Philippine payment service, which suggests she is based there, but she claims to ship pills all over the world.

“I have many clients who have gone through the process and they all come out successful and free,” says Layla. “No one ever died. No one was taken to the hospital.”

But while Layla tries to portray it as low risk, several qualified doctors told me that late-term abortions at home can be very traumatic and risky.

“Dr Jane” also includes a pack of injections in her “abortion kit” – these are sometimes used to prevent bleeding, but this form of medication can be dangerous for home use, especially for women with high blood pressure.

A leading gynecologist campaigning to change abortion law, Dr Jonathan Lord, says the trauma goes beyond just the physical process, “which is obviously very traumatic”.

“The trauma is why are they doing this in the first place? To be in a situation where they are trying to get pills illegally while they are six months pregnant, something disastrous must have happened to their lives.”

Layla is loud when she tells me why she sells the pills.

“The world needs to know that a woman’s body is her property and not the government’s,” she says.

When I tell her about the increasing number of women facing court in Britain as a result of purchasing abortion pills (both from the NHS and online), she tells me she knows what she is doing is illegal: “But that’s not the whole story.”

Abortion at any stage is illegal in the Philippines. Anyone who performs one faces six years in prison under the country’s criminal code, while women who undergo the procedure could face between two and six years in prison.

She started selling pills after taking them herself. She already had children and was struggling financially and told me, “Our life is hard.”

Layla was 18 weeks pregnant when she finally bought her own abortion pills because she needed time to save the money.

The woman she bought them from then offered her the chance to resell them. She now gets paid $30 for every woman she “helps.” She says she has sold pills to 14 people around the world in the past two weeks, but none in Britain.

Layla never processes the pills herself. “There’s my… you could call her my boss. I send orders to her, and she sends those orders to the shipper.”

She says she is one of seven women who work under her “boss.”

Ads for abortion pills can be found on social media platforms such as Facebook, TikTok and Telegram, but are especially easy to find on the Meta platforms. It only takes a few keywords to bring up different groups and posts from sellers.

On Instagram, sellers post infographics about abortion and encourage people to send them a private message or link to Telegram chats that post pictures and prices of pills. One post details how to avoid detection, including advice to create a new email address to order pills and disable location tracking.

These sellers are ‘unscrupulous opportunists’, says Louise McCudden, spokesperson for charity MSI.

McCudden believes that companies, like Meta, must take responsibility for allowing trading to continue on their platforms.

“When global social media companies refuse to properly regulate their multi-billion dollar platforms, vulnerable women are left at the mercy of scammers, crooks and fraudsters,” she added.

“Ironically, it is often the fear of persecution that leaves women in vulnerable circumstances feeling reliant on unregulated providers rather than accessing care within the NHS.”

Read more: What are the UK’s abortion laws and the penalties for breaking them?

Venny Ala-Siurua is the Executive Director of Women on Web (WoW) – a non-profit online abortion service that ships abortion medications worldwide and legally provides pills to women up to 12 weeks old.

WoW said it used to receive five requests every day from women in Britain, but this quickly dropped to almost zero when the NHS introduced Pills by Post.

But Venny says that “these (illegal) sellers operate very openly”.

WoW is experiencing a different problem, struggling with the Facebook algorithm’s inability to distinguish between their content and that of these illegal sellers.

Venny himself has been permanently banned from Facebook, and the site often removes WoW’s own abortion-oriented content for violating the company’s “community rules.”

“We have a team that is trying to negotiate with Meta almost full-time to get our content available again,” she says.

When asked about these findings, and those of Sky News, Meta said: “We want our platforms to be a place where people can access trusted information about health services such as abortion, advertisers can promote health services and everyone can discuss and debate government policy. this space.

“Reproductive health content must follow our rules, including those on pharmaceutical drugs and misinformation.”

Meta said it had removed infringing content that was brought to its attention.

Telegram and TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.

An amendment by Labor MP Diana Johnson to the Criminal Justice Bill would have put an end to anyone being prosecuted for terminating their own pregnancies in England and Wales.

However, in the wake of the announcement of the general election, discussions on the bill have been put on hold following an early dissolution of Parliament.

Catherine Robinson, from Right to Life UK, said Sky News’ findings about the availability of abortion pills on social media were “extremely disturbing”.

And there’s little to stop these online sellers, who portray their dangerous trade as almost heroic.

In reality, it is their failure to recognize the dangers of facilitating late-term abortions that endangers the lives of the women they claim to help.

*Names have been changed.

Sky News

(c) Sky News 2024: A look into the illegal abortion trade on social media – with late termination costing £350