Section 340 of the UAE Penal Code stipulates that “any person inducing a voluntary pregnancy termination in a pregnant woman by providing her with medicaments or by using instruments for this purpose is liable to up to five years’ imprisonment. Picture is for ilustrative purposes only. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: In a country where abortion is illegal, women are turning to a cheap ulcer medication to end unwanted pregnancies. The medication, registered for use to prevent gastric ulcers, is easily available in the UAE. An XPRESS investigation discovered that all it takes is a quick phone call, Dh1,500 and a trip to Bur Dubai to purchase the pill which induces Do It Yourself (DIY) abortions.

This frightening new trend is a talking point on internet chat sites where UAE residents are writing in with abortion-related queries. One such chat forum led us to J.C., a Filipino expat who sells the pill.

"Demand for the tablet has grown in recent years since social and moral values have changed over the years while the laws haven't," says J.C., who charges Dh1,500 for a course of five pills. While the recommended dosage for medicinal purposes is one pill a day, J.C. recommends taking "the first pill at 7pm, followed by two pills at 7am and another two at 7pm to induce an abortion or miscarriage. With the minimum of five pills consumed, bleeding is guaranteed to occur within 24 hours".

In the event of a pregnancy that's over six weeks, J.C. recommends doubling the dose. "Since there is the risk of extremely heavy bleeding in those cases, we recommend an over-the-counter drug to help combat the cramps," she says. For those willing to take the risk, J.C.'s husband is available any time of the day in Bur Dubai to conduct the transaction.

Another Dubai-based seller lists her e-mail address on a chat forum, with a message that her services are available exclusively for the UAE market. If the pill doesn't abort the foetus, the seller guarantees a termination with a medical procedure for free. What the seller doesn't mention are the methods used, the safety of the mother's life, the sterility of the instruments…

It was word of mouth that led us to another Dubai-based Filipino dealer.

When contacted, the dealer, who chose to remain anonymous, gave no guarantee of a successful abortion and even warned that consumption of the pill may result in an ectopal pregnancy or, in rare cases, death through extreme bleeding or fatal infections.

Despite the risks, the dealer assures that the Dh120 abortion pill is one of the most wanted drugs in Dubai. Although both she and J.C. sell the same brand, their advice on quantity and consumption are radically different.

"In order to increase the chances of abortion, one should consume two pills a day, one orally, one inserted internally, over the course of three days. By the fourth morning, at the latest, bleeding should begin. Light at first, until the cramps get worse, and the clots get bigger, the bleeding is a sign that the pill is slowly killing the foetus in the womb," she says. "Some women find it an easy alternative to carrying out an unwanted pregnancy."

They have little choice. Having a child outside wedlock results in a jail term followed by deportation. When a single woman gets pregnant she has two options: Get married quickly or leave the country.

Extreme measures

When neither of this happens, some women abandon their newborns. Police statistics show that 154 children were dumped by parents in the UAE between 2004 and 2009. Three babies were abandoned in the last month alone, including a girl who was left on the stairs of a building in the upscale The Gardens area.

Shocking, but nothing compared to last year's horrific incident where a mother delivered a baby at a Dubai airport toilet but reportedly strangled the infant and dumped it near a rubbish bin before catching a flight.

Regardless of the risks involved, many single women who get pregnant consider abortion as an easy route. Not surprisingly, online chat forums are flooded with queries for the abortion pill. Dealers cashing in on the demand list their e-mail addresses and mobile phone numbers.

A women's website advertises the "availability of contraceptives and pills… for women living in countries where there are no safe abortion services". The list includes the UAE. "An abortion with pills is very safe and similar to a miscarriage. Millions of women have done it and proven that they can do it themselves at home," boasts the website. Although the service is free, sellers ask for a donation of £70 (Dh415), with shipment guaranteed to arrive within seven days.

Although shrouded in secrecy, stories of illegal abortions abound in the UAE. A British website says, "The other strange quirk to British abortion is as a haven for women from more restrictive countries. We've long been an offshore abortion provider to Ireland — but next comes Italy, and after that, the United Arab Emirates."

In the UAE, induced abortion is legally restricted to cases in which an abortion is necessary to save the woman's life.

Despite the law and medical warnings (see box), some women in Dubai are ready to take the risk to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy, often to avoid the harsh punishment meted out by the law.

Lucy was only 22 when she found out she was pregnant. With no money to fly back to Ireland, and no immediate plans to marry her boyfriend, Lucy was left with only one choice. "I knocked on several doors and each time was told my only option was to go back home for the procedure," says the now 24-year-old cabin crew. "Eventually, a British doctor I met at a party said he would perform the procedure in his clinic here in Dubai, after hours."

The clinic, which has two branches in Dubai, was home to the scene of an abortion that went horribly wrong in March 2009. "I was charged Dh3,000 by the doctor, who assured me that I wouldn't feel a thing and that I would be home in a couple of hours. What followed was one of the worst moments of my life. The anaesthetic he gave me wasn't enough to knock me out, or numb the pain, so there I was, awake and fully conscious of what was going on, albeit a bit drowsy.

"The doctor gave me a mix of pills, including valium. Within an hour I started cramping badly and bleeding. But the pain was so intense, so raw, that I eventually passed out. When I regained consciousness, I was sore and could see blood everywhere. The doctor reassured me that my nine-week-old foetus had been aborted."

One month later, when Lucy's bleeding didn't stop, she went back to the same doctor for an ultrasound. "I couldn't believe what he told me. The abortion had been left incomplete! There were still remnants of foetal tissue in my uterus. This time, the doctor said there was nothing he could do to help me. My back was against the wall. How could I sue him for a procedure which I asked him to carry out illegally, knowing that I had broken the law?" she says. Eventually, Lucy flew back home to have the corrective surgery she believes she should have done in the first place.

According to the legal system in Dubai, unless done for medical reasons on a married woman, abortion is illegal.

Recently, a man faced charges of pre-meditated murder after investigations revealed he aborted a foetus that was born alive but died within hours.

Although there are no statistics available on the number of illegal pregnancies and their outcomes in the UAE, regional figures are shocking. The International Planned Parenthood Federation estimates that seven million abortions were carried out in the Arab world between 1995 and 2000.

W. Rai, an Indian, first got pregnant at the age of 24. With a boyfriend who'd just left Dubai to study in the United States, Rai was on her own when she found out she was pregnant.

"My boyfriend at the time said that he wanted to have nothing more to do with me, would never even consider marrying me and that if I did go ahead and have the baby, he would disown it. Moreover, he threatened to report me to Dubai Police if I didn't find a way to get rid of this pregnancy. I had no clue what to do, so I went online and found a maternity ward in Mumbai that deals with both births and terminations."

The entire procedure, with ticket fare, cost Rai over Dh5,000, "a pittance compared to what I would have to suffer otherwise," she says. Unlike Rai, Meredith took her chance in Dubai, at the same clinic Lucy went to. "The abortion was easy and successful," she says. "It was a lot less trouble than having to fly out of the country for the same." For Meredith, the doctor at the clinic was on hand to offer medical assistance when she went into pre-empted labour to abort her six-week-old foetus. "The pain was bearable, and a clean, quick solution to an otherwise messy situation," she says.

Legal and medical ramifications

Section 340 of the UAE Penal Code stipulates that "any person inducing a voluntary pregnancy termination in a pregnant woman by providing her with medicaments or by using instruments for this purpose is liable to up to five years' imprisonment." The penalty is seven years if the termination is without the woman's consent.

Medical termination of pregnancies (MTP) is allowed when it can be proved that the continuation of pregnancy would be detrimental to the life of the mother or the child. But it has to be done before the foetus is four months old. The procedure also requires the approval of a medical panel and the written consent of the woman's husband or guardian.

Under general criminal law, an abortion may be performed to save the life of the pregnant woman.

According to a legal expert, abortion is not allowed even if the pregnancy results from rape. Even conditions like Down's Syndrome and other deformities that can be discovered during pregnancy do not warrant medical terminations under the UAE law.

Dr Kamini Naik, obstetrician, gynaecologist and lactation consultant with the Doctors Medical Centre at Sharjah, said: "When people approach me for terminations, I advise that they seriously consider the possibility of continuing pregnancy. I am extremely happy that after the initial shock of unplanned pregnancy has passed, many of them decide to continue."

Even from an ethical point of view, Dr Naik said she does not advise abortions. "I believe people are knowledgeable and with both partners taking responsibility one can prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Terminations leave unseen emotional scars in the woman besides the complications of anaesthesia and surgery. An infection may even have adverse implications for the woman to conceive again."

Asked about the side effects of abortion pills allegedly being sold in the UAE, Dr Naik said: "It is dangerous to take such pills as they can lead to haemorrhage and endanger life."

Side effects of abortion pills

Incomplete abortion in 15 to 20 per cent of cases

Instead of abortion, may result in the deformation of foetus

Severe diahorrea in 13 per cent of patients based on clinical trials of the drug

If taken after the eighth week of pregnancy, the pill is said to sometimes cause uterine rupture, a potentially life-threatening outcome for the mother.

If incomplete, could lead to retardation of the child.

Other side effects include abdominal pain, nausea, flatulence, headache, dyspepsia, vomiting and constipation

Could result in excessive bleeding and cramps.

- With inputs from Sharmila Dhal, Senior Reporter