UK

Inside social media’s illicit abortion trade – where a late termination costs £350

It’s taken less than 10 minutes to find someone willing to sell me abortion pills.

Dr Jane* tells me she is based in Dubai but assures me the medication will arrive in the UK in a matter of days. How pregnant you are doesn’t matter – she provides pills as late as eight months.

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

But I am not in the late stages of pregnancy, and this is not the depths of the dark web we are messaging on,

This is Facebook and I’ve told Dr Jane I’m a journalist. I found her within minutes of searching for abortion pills on the site.

In the last two years, six women have faced trial in Britain for allegedly illegally procuring their own abortions, compared to just three convictions between 1861 and 2022.

In Britain, abortions are free on the NHS with pills used up to 10 weeks and when COVID hit, these were made available by post.

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

Abortions have risen to the highest number on record in England and Wales, with 251,377 taking place in 2022. Abortion provider MSI Reproductive Choices said it believes pressures due to the cost-of-living crisis combined with a lack of access to contraception through stretched NHS services are both “playing a bigger role” in this.

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

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

Using pills bought online to abort a pregnancy is illegal under the UK’s 1861 abortion law – half of the women who faced trial since 2022 had acquired them this way.

Found within a few clicks, the pills are sold by people claiming to be doctors, but whose credentials are almost impossible to verify.

Dr Jane’s profile picture is of a smiling woman with a stethoscope around her neck – but that image is actually taken 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, it is £150. Anything above six months costs £300.

Pills can be taken as late as eight months, she says, and sends graphic images of foetuses claiming to have helped abort them. Their tiny features are visible and veined, and they are clearly dead. But whether she did help abort them is difficult to know.

A medical expert who looked at the images for me said it is impossible to tell if they were generated by AI or at what stage the miscarriages occurred. But they said they would question the credibility of anyone who sent images like these as “proof”.

“Abortion is a woman’s right. It shouldn’t be illegal,” Dr Jane says. No woman, she claims, has ever died from pills she has 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. When her account disappears, there are still dozens of others to choose from.

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

In contrast, the pills are actually “very cheap” to buy direct from the manufacturer for NHS and medical providers, one gynaecologist tells me. One costs approximately 17p per tablet and the other is £10.14 per tablet.

In one Facebook group, a woman posts about needing help. Within minutes, there are multiple comments from sellers offering advice and pills. Some sellers openly post WhatsApp numbers they use to deal directly with buyers.

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

FOR USE ON ABORTION PILLS STORY ONLY

Layla’s Facebook picture comes from Pinterest. With red hair, lurid eyeshadow, and black-ringed lips, it gives her account a dark feel.

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

Layla tells me she has done this before, that aborting after 24 weeks is going to be “painful”.

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

She claims to have helped one woman (not in the UK) who was 29 weeks pregnant.

Buying abortion pills from her would cost £358 as, like with Dr Jane, the price rises the later a woman is in her pregnancy. The money is paid via GCash, a Filipino payment service, which suggests that is where she is based but she claims to ship pills all around the world.

“I have a lot of clients who went through the process and they all come out successful and free,” Layla says. “No one has ever died. No one was brought to the hospital.”

But while Layla tries to paint it as low-risk, multiple qualified doctors told me that late, at-home abortions can be deeply traumatic and high risk.

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

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

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

FOR USE ON ABORTION PILLS SOCIAL STORY ONLY

Layla is vocal when she tells me her reasons for selling the pills.

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

When I tell her about the rising number of women facing trial in the UK as a result of procuring abortion pills (both from the NHS and online), she tells me she knows what she does 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 penal code, while women who undergo the procedure face between two and six years in jail.

She started selling pills after using them herself. She already had children and was struggling financially telling 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 (£24) for every woman she “assists”. In the last two weeks, she says she has sold pills to 14 people around the world – although none in the UK.

Layla never handles 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 working under her “boss”.

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Adverts for abortion pills can be found on social media platforms including Facebook, TikTok and Telegram, but they are particularly easy to locate on the Meta platforms. It takes just a few keywords to throw up several groups and posts from sellers.

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

These sellers are “unscrupulous opportunists”, says Louise McCudden, a spokesperson for charity MSI.

McCudden believes companies, like Meta, should take responsibility for allowing the trade to continue on their platforms.

“When global social media companies refuse to properly regulate their billion-dollar platforms, it leaves vulnerable women at the mercy of scammers, crooks, and frauds,” she adds.

“Ironically, it is often fear of prosecution which causes women in vulnerable circumstances to feel they must rely on unregulated suppliers rather than accessing care within the NHS.”

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

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Venny Ala-Siurua is the executive director of Women on Web (WoW) – a non-profit online abortion service that sends abortion medication worldwide, legally providing pills to women up to 12 weeks.

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

But Venny says “these [illegal] sellers operate very openly”.

WoW experiences a different problem and struggles with the Facebook algorithm not being able to distinguish between their content and that of these illegal sellers.

Venny herself has been permanently banned from Facebook and the site often takes down WoW’s own abortion-focused content for violating the company’s “community rules”.

“We have a team almost full-time trying to negotiate with Meta to get our content back up,” she says.

When asked about this, and Sky News’s findings, Meta says: “We want our platforms to be a place where people can access reliable information about health services such as abortion, advertisers can promote health services, and everyone can discuss and debate public policies in this space.

“Content about reproductive health must follow our rules, including those on pharmaceutical drugs and misinformation.”

Meta said it had removed violating content brought to its attention.

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

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An amendment by Labour MP Diana Johnson to the Criminal Justice Bill would have stopped anyone facing prosecution for ending their own pregnancy in England and Wales.

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

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

And there is little to stop these online sellers, who paint their dangerous trade as almost heroic.

In reality, it is their failure to acknowledge the hazards of facilitating late-term abortions that is putting the lives of the very women they claim to help at risk.

*Names have been changed.

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