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Illegal abortions a click away

  Thursday, 05 l 08 l 2010 Source:  The Straits Times   
By: Liew HanQing and Teh Joo Lin

Sellers tout pills to Chinese foreign workers here via online forum

THE advertisements keep appearing on the online forum, despite efforts by the webmaster to remove them.

They tout abortion pills from China, mainly to Chinese nationals who are afraid of being repatriated if the authorities here find out they are pregnant.

Sellers promise a “quick and fuss-free” pregnancy termination with “no side effects”.

The Straits Times found two Chinese women who had ordered the drugs and had them delivered here.

The kit, sold for between $130 and $160, contains the known abortion drugs mifepristone and misoprostol, which induce miscarriage. Tonics of Chinese motherwort herb pills and “Gongxuening” tablets are also thrown in.

Both the drugs in the kit cannot be sold here without a licence, and mifepristone is not found in any medicinal product here, said a spokesman for the Health Sciences Authority (HSA). Misoprostol must be prescribed by a licensed doctor.

Under the Medicines Act, anyone caught importing or selling them can be fined up to $5,000, jailed up to two years, or both. The Penal Code is even more severe, stipulating a maximum of a three-year jail term, or fine, or both, for a person who voluntarily causes a woman to miscarry.

But for the women The Straits Times spoke to, the drugs seemed an easy way out. Work permit holders will be sent home if they are found to be pregnant or have a child, as they are breaching the terms of their stay here, said the Manpower Ministry. Only workers who are already married to Singaporeans or permanent residents, with the Government’s permission, are exempted.

The fear of being found out keeps foreign workers from seeking medical help. Plus, going to a doctor for an abortion is more expensive, from $500 up.

Ms Bridget Tan, president of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), said: “They are afraid of going to a doctor because they are afraid the authorities will find out. For them, the work is so very important, so to lose the baby is more important than to lose the job.”

A 20-year-old Chinese woman who took the drugs found that she still needed expert medical help anyway. She suffered an incomplete abortion and had to undergo a separate procedure at a hospital. She declined to say more.

Another, a 16-year-old, said she suffered heavy bleeding after taking the pills: “I thought I was going to die.”

Checks by The Straits Times showed that at least one Beijing-based supplier had developed a system for distributing the drugs here. It would take orders online, then ask one of the buyers here to deliver the drugs to fellow buyers in return for a discount. A meeting would be arranged and the drugs and money would change hands.

illegal-abortionLast week, The Straits Times met a Chinese national in his 20s who had bought the pills for his girlfriend, and was making deliveries to other buyers who had ordered the drug online. He claimed the supplier had told him the drugs were safe, and that he did not know he was breaking the law.

“(The supplier) said he was a doctor, and that he had sold the drugs to many women with no issues,” the man said.

After the meeting, he dumped the boxes of medicine in a dustbin.

Dr Jen Shek Wei, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, said it was “highly likely” that the pills available for sale online were fake versions of mifepristone, which is approved for use in countries including Sweden, Germany and the United States.

Asked if he had come across patients who experienced botched abortions from having taken similar drugs, Dr Jen said he had – but that patients were “not always truthful” about what they had taken.

Possible complications from taking abortion-inducing drugs include heavy bleeding and womb infections, a result of incomplete abortions.

He added: “When you take such drugs, you are not covered by insurance if complications arise, and you can’t sue the hospital or the doctors.”

Abortion is legal here but must be performed by a medical practitioner, usually via vacuum aspiration for early pregnancies, where the womb is emptied with a vacuum. For mid-trimester abortions, medicine is inserted into the vagina to induce expulsion of the foetus, followed by vacuum aspiration.

Both medical abortions – which can include the use of the drug misoprostol – and surgical abortions are allowed here.

Professor Kuldip Singh, a senior consultant at the National University Hospital’s obstetrics and gynaecology department, stressed that abortion drugs should not be self-administered.

“Instead, there should be a proper consultation with a qualified doctor who will assess the suitability of any individual woman for medical abortion,” he said.

Medical abortion is suitable for women who are up to eight weeks pregnant, or 12 to 24 weeks pregnant. Surgical abortion is best performed for those who are between seven and 12 weeks pregnant.

Prof Singh and his colleagues have seen cases of “failure and complications” – such as bleeding and fever – arising from the self-administration of drugs.

Mr Li Zhihui, the webmaster of, the site on which the abortion pills were sold, said the forum’s administrators routinely delete forum threads that advertise abortion pills.

“We regularly warn members not to sell such drugs on the forum because it is illegal,” he said in Mandarin.

The drug mifepristone, which blocks a hormone needed to sustain pregnancy, cannot be imported or sold in Singapore without a licence.

In fact, there are no medicinal products containing mifepristone registered here.

The drug, however, is approved for use in abortions in many countries, including  Sweden, Germany, the United States and Australia.

While misoprostol is used for the treatment of gastric ulcers, it also causes uterine contractions, and is commonly used to facilitate abortions. It cannot be imported or sold without a licence, and is regulated as a prescription-only medicine.

In 2001, an Indonesian maid who took the drug Cytotec – which contains
misoprostol – to abort her five-month-old foetus suffered an incomplete abortion. Complications meant doctors had to remove her uterus, rendering her barren.

The 24-year-old woman, whose Singaporean boyfriend had bought the pills from a Filipino maid at Lucky Plaza, was jailed nine months for causing a miscarriage.

Her partner was also jailed for helping her get the pills.

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