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Why would women in Britain seek illegal abortions?

3:14 pm - November 23rd 2007

by Jess McCabe    

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'I had an abortion' dressAbortion has been legal in the UK for 40 years. So why has the BBC discovered that illegal abortions are still taking place?

BBC Radio 5 Live undertook an investigation, after a discussion in a chat room suggested that women were seeking out drugs to induce abortion without having to consult a doctor. We can surmise that someone suggested going to a Chinese medicine shop, because that is where they sent their undercover reporter, posing as an “illegal immigrant”.

Details so far are limited – the documentary will be broadcast on Sunday at 11.30AM – but the BBC’s story on it brings up some worrying questions about the availability of abortion, and the stigma associated with abortion.

First up, the reasons why women would put themselves at risk by downing illegal pills of questionable providence, when they should be able to access legal, safe abortion with a simple visit to their GP or a private clinic. As I said, the BBC sent their reporter undercover as an illegal immigrant, suggesting that they thought that might be one driver. The story goes on to say:

Abortion is not free on the NHS for every woman. If someone’s home country doesn’t have a reciprocal NHS agreement, or you are here illegally – then you face paying between £500 and £1,500.

If so, it is yet another worrying indication that the government’s prioritising of the drive to get rid of illegal immigrants over healthcare rights for all is dangerous and wrong-headed. But the BBC also suggests that it is likely that British citizens are seeking out illegal terminations:

Community health workers told us the issue of illegal abortion affects many women from young British teenagers who do not trust their doctor, through to people who are here illegally and are frightened of being found out.

This is, again, a significant sign of failure. Yet is it surprising? Only a few weeks ago, one doctor was accused of giving patients biased advice when they come seeking an abortion. A quick look at Pro-Choice Majority, a site which features the stories of hundreds of women who have had abortions, reveals that although many women feel supported in their decision by their doctors, it is not uncommon for women to feel like they are being judged. Here’s one quote from the site:

My doctor was very rude and gave me no information I had to look in the phone book for a clinic, luckily they took care of me. I believe it is any person’s right to an abortion if they believe it to be the right thing for them.

One of the reasons that Pro-Choice Majority is so important, is that it demonstrates that there are lots and lots of ordinary women out there who have had abortions; who don’t regret having those abortions. As Irina Lester recently set out at The F Word, the media tends to select women to talk about their abortions who have been traumatised by the experience. As she said: “If the dominant idea promoted in society is that abortion causes regret and depression and these are the only possible and valid post-abortion feelings, there is little surprise that women are finding it hard to cope.”

Perhaps it is also no surprise that some women – including teenagers who may not want to approach their family doctor, or who may have been rebuffed or felt judged – opt for the quiet, but illegal and potentially very dangerous alternative. It’s a sad indictment of our society that this still happens.

Cross posted at The F Word

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About the author
Jess is editor of the online magazine The F-Word.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Equality ,Feminism

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Reader comments

As Irina Lester recently set out at The F Word, the media tends to select women to talk about their abortions who have been traumatised by the experience.

Agreed, and it isn’t helped by Conservative attacks on the “abortion industry”.

2. Margin4 Error

I tend not to comment on abortion. As a guy it is frankly none of my business. I have no control over abortion at a personal level and tend to feel unqualified to express a view over all.

However, is there not a sensible case, like smoking, for maintaining a degree of dissaproval of abortion. Not moral outrage or stigma, but some degree to which it is generally preferred that people use contraception rather than rely on abortion?

Abortion does carry a social cost to the NHS, and like smoking, having some degree of disaproval does not automatically mean banning or restricting it. It would still be a choice, just a choice we’d prefer people avoided.

As I say, I ‘m not really qualified, but I thought I’d ask.

young British teenagers who do not trust their doctor

This rings true. During a documentary I co-produced with the BBC for the Asian Network Report, I came across a couple of young British-Asians who didn’t trust their family doctor. They believed that their doctor – also British-Asian – would tell their parents what they had been up to, and therefore avoided going to them for abortion advice or contraception.

We found absolutely no evidence of any doctor breaking their Hippocratic Oath in this manner, but this didn’t stop the teenagers from distrusting them.

Margin4 Error – abortion isn’t a fun ride. No-one wants to have to have one. Of course, it’s much better to promote contraception.

However, if women and girls are opting for blackmarket abortion pills, so they don’t have to face their doctors out of fear of being judged for their decision, then it’s no longer a sensible preference for people to avoid having abortions, it is a dangerous stigma.

@ Margin4 Error


I tend not to comment on abortion. As a guy it is frankly none of my business.

… then

Abortion does carry a social cost

I’d say that if it has a social cost then it is very much your business. Additionally so if you happened to impregnate someone who then was thinking about abortion. You may not be the final decision-maker, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t comment on the issues raised.

I’d tie in that government funding for “Family Planning Clinics” (nasty sounding euphemism there) which are admittedly focused more on contraception, but also are a natural point of contact for some regarding abortion has been frozen over the past five years or so. The end result (given all the other pressures on the NHS) is that provision of these clinics is falling apart. The militant tendency in the Tory Party who campaign against doctors who deal with abortion and even contraception definitely aren’t helping either.

Hi Jess, thanks for this.

“As Irina Lester recently set out at The F Word, the media tends to select women to talk about their abortions who have been traumatised by the experience.”

I’m not as convinced as Sunny that this is the case. As someone who’s had an abortion and who hasn’t been traumatised by it, I’ve done no end of media interviews – newspapers, magazines, radio and TV. The only problem is that there is a shortage of women who are prepared to speak out, probably because of the inevitable crap that follows. If more women were prepared to talk openly about their non-traumatic abortions, maybe we’d make some progress in this area.

Abortion Rights are always looking for women who are willing to tell their stories. If people are happy to do that then I would suggest contacting them via their web page.

As for the thrust of your article. Yep. I think it just illustrates how the concept that women in this country have abortion on demand is just a myth. We don’t. And when we’re met with anti-choice doctors, and anti-choice religious groups trying to impose their views on us, it’s sometimes easier to go it alone and take those risks. It’s shameful that this is happening.

8. Margin4 Error


Were I to impregnate my wife and she was facing that sort of decision, I’d consider it my duty only to support whatever she felt was right. I would try very hard not to sway her either way as that could make her situation all the harder to deal with.


It isn’t a fun ride. But is that not the problem? We can’t pretend it is a fun ride so as to ensure no stigma is attached. Just as we wouldn’t pretend smoking is healthy. Ideally we don’t want people to need abortions (because – unprotected sex causes STDs, there is a cost to the NHS, and there are potential complications for the individual).

Hiding the complicated issues involved hardly seems a grown up thing to do.

More importantly, stigma may be a misdiagnosis.

This backstreet abortion issue seems more closely linked to immigrants who understandably fear UK authorities, and teenagers who wrongly think their GP will tell their parents. (GP rules forbid them from doing so).

Margin4 Error @2:

You ask about whether there’s a case for ‘maintaining a degree of disapproval of abortion’, but then continue that this should be about suggesting that ‘it is generally preferred that people use contraception rather than rely on abortion’.

It sounds to me like you think:
– women are using abortions as a form of contraception
– you think these women are being irresponsible and you would like to disapprove of them/their decisions because having abortions carries a burden on us all via the NHS
– it is women and their decisions to have abortions that we should disapprove of since you’ve taken the time to say that abortions have little to do with you as a man

The fact is that most women do not use abortion as a form of contraception, and are not ‘relying’ on abortion in lieu of using contraception. And men should be involved in contraception conversations, and if they aren’t, then aren’t they the ones relying on abortion as a form of contraception? In which case, you are most free to have an opinion as a man because the abortion has everything to do with you and your (not literally ‘you’ in this case obviously) failure to use contraception.

Finally, you make the point that in your scenario, ‘It would still be a choice, just a choice we’d prefer people avoided.’

Do you just mean that you would prefer ‘people’ (by which it seems you mean women as you apparently, as a man, ‘have no control over abortions’) didn’t have abortions? As in you would like the number of abortions to go down?

If yes, another way to think of it would be to say that you would like the number of unwanted pregnancies to go down. And guess what? It’s fairly safe to assume that anyone facing an unwanted pregnancy would agree with you – they too wish it wasn’t so. It is after all just that: unwanted.

10. Margin4 Error


That’s an interesting reply.

Firstly, just to clear this up, men and women equally responsible for unprotected sex. It is just that women are responsible for the decisions from that point on. Men can’t force actions or inactions on a woman.

Secondly, obviously abortions are contraception, all be it one of last resort.

Third, there are a plethora of options available to avoid needing an abortion, such as using more conventional contraception, or a morning after pill, or abstaining from vaginal intercourse. Those that don’t do so while at the same time not actively wanting to be parents are irresponsible.

Fourth, this of course does not apply to those who plan a pregnancy but later change their minds because of changes of circumstance or heart.

Fifth, like smoking, abortion does hold a cost to the NHS potentially to the health (mainly mental) of the individual – and like smoking, it too doesn’t always result in health problems. Hence while although those who smoke are still rightly treated for their cancer, and women who get accidentally pregnant can be (to be blunt) treated for their pregnancy, we do discourage smoking to prevent that cancer and we should (and do) discourage unprotected sex to discourage unwanted pregnancy.


Yes I want the number of unwanted pregnancies to go down, as does the whole of society (except perhaps the catholicchurch with its anti-contraception dogma).

And since society wants that, is it not somewhat sensible to emphasise that an accidental pregnancy the consequence of reckless behaviour?

And hence as I started, do we not therefore have a duty to an extent to signal some wider disapproval?

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