A doctor who performs abortions in Christchurch says she’s “disturbed” people are illegally importing abortion medicine.
Last year, 39 “kits” containing abortion medicines mifepristone and/or misoprostol were seized at the border, according to regulator Medsafe.
The pills induce miscarriage and are used for early medical abortions for women up to 10 weeks pregnant.
Certifying consultant and abortion provider Dr Pippa Mackay said she was concerned to hear about people importing abortion providing pills they had bought online, when abortions were safe and accessible in New Zealand.
“I’m disturbed that people feel they have to resort to an illegal way to get a service that is legal here,” she said.
Dr Mackay said people importing the medicines were putting themselves at risk of getting into legal trouble, as well as putting their health at risk.
“The risks are principally heavy bleeding that occasionally can be catastrophic and potentially life threatening.”
It is a requirement to have an ultrasound before a termination, and people who had not done so could be at risk if they took abortion pills, Dr Mackay said.
If a pregnancy is ectopic or tubal, the tablets will not end the pregnancy, which could lead to a “catastrophic bleed from a tube which certainly can be fatal,” Dr Mackay said.
Women more than 10 weeks pregnant also put themselves at risk by taking the pills, and if only one pill was taken, foetal abnormalities were possible.
Mifepristone and misoprostol can only be prescribed to induce abortion with the approval of two doctors called certifying consultants.
Under law, which classifies abortion as a justice issue rather than a health issue, abortions can only be approved if a woman’s physical or mental health is in danger, or if the child would be born severely disabled.
Medical abortion pills are usually taken 48 hours apart, and must be taken at an abortion clinic.
Late last month the Law Commission presented Justice Minister Andrew Little with three options for taking abortion out of the Crimes Act.
The alternative approaches include: No statutory test for an abortion to take place; a statutory test performed by one health practitioner; and a statutory test performed only after 22 weeks of pregnancy.
New Zealand’s abortion law is more than 40 years old and starts with the proposition abortion is a crime.
Dr Mackay said liberalisation of the law could mean fewer people importing abortion pills illegally.
“I suspect people feeling they have to go through our current law may be a disincentive, or they may feel that their doctor or someone around is not going to be supportive of them obtaining one.
“I think there are always women who are going to want to do it themselves… But I think that taking our abortion framework into a non-criminal event would be much better in terms of hopefully making women feel that they can access abortion more readily.”
But pro-life group Voice for Life’s national president Jacqui de Ruiter disagrees.
“Any woman can access a safe and legal abortion in New Zealand. I mean, you’ve got 13,285 women who [had] terminations last year alone… It’s an easy process to do, the pro-abortion people might not say that, but the fact of the matter is if 13,285 women have gone through a termination of their pregnancy, then it is easy access.”
Ms de Ruiter said the only reason anyone would illegally import abortion medication was if they wanted to keep their actions secret.
“They’re in a crisis situation and the idea of continuing a pregnancy is just too much for them so they’re looking for that quick easy fix.”
Abortion Law Reform Association president Terry Bellamak said she wasn’t surprised people were “resorting to” importing mifepristone and misoprostol from the internet.
“Abortion out in rural areas is relatively difficult to get especially in places like the West Coast where you have to go to Christchurch.
“DHBs do pay for abortions, so it’s not like you have to pay for it like in, say, the US. Still, it’s really difficult to access because you have to take days off work, you have to take days off to get all your bloods and your swabs and your ultrasound; it ends up being quite a thing.
“Also, people who are not covered by the health service would be faced with going private which can cost anywhere from $900 to $2500.”
In contrast, a recent study in the United States found that medications bought online cost between $165 and $540.
The seizure of the abortion kits by Medsafe was part of operation PANGEA, a global crackdown on the trade of illicit medicines led by Interpol.
*These imports were not released. Medsafe would only release on the authority of a prescriber authorised to prescribe medicines for procuring an abortion.