Some women in countries where abortion is restricted are using the internet to buy medication enabling them to abort a pregnancy at home, the BBC has learned.
Women in Northern Ireland and over 70 countries with restrictions have used one of the main websites, Women on Web. A British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology review of 400 customers found nearly 11% had needed a surgical procedure after taking the medication. The website says it can help reduce the problems linked with unsafe abortions.
But anti-abortion campaigners called the development of such sites "very worrying indeed". The research into those who had used Women on Web found that about 8% did not end up using the medication they had ordered. Almost 11% went on to need a surgical procedure - either because the drugs had not completed the abortion or because of excessive bleeding. Almost 200 women answered questions about their experiences - 58% said they were just grateful to have been able to have had an abortion in this way, while 31% had felt stressed but found the experience acceptable.
Women on Web posts the drugs only to countries where abortion is heavily restricted, and to women who declare they are less than nine weeks' pregnant. A US woman, who has a rare medical complication meaning pregnancy is life-threatening to her, described her experience when she used the website while in Thailand. "Women on Web kept in contact with me via e-mail. The medication arrived through Customs, properly blister-packed, with complete paperwork and a doctor's signature. "Medication from other websites came in unmarked bottles with no instructions or paperwork - it was quite frightening.
"I was not very far along - only three or four weeks. It went smoothly for me. "I think it's very important women have this resource to turn to in that situation - and they can need it for a number of reasons."
The Family Planning Association in Northern Ireland has had several calls from women considering buying abortion pills online. The FPA said that on two occasions, women bought drugs without appropriate medical information. They experienced complications and needed aftercare. Northern Ireland FPA director Audrey Simpson said: "The Women On Web site is very helpful and reputable. "But for Northern Ireland women, it is encouraging them to break the law - and as an organisation, we have to work within the law. "We're really concerned about women accessing the rogue sites - we're hearing about it and we know it's happening. "There are potentially serious medical complications for women from sites which aren't well managed and this could be the new era of backstreet abortions." Anti-abortion campaigners said they were appalled by such websites. Josephine Quintavalle, from the group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: "This is very worrying indeed. It represents further trivialisation of the value of the unborn child. "It's like taking abortion into the shadows. These drugs have side-effects and tragedies will increase."