DUBAI // Pregnant women are putting their health at risk by using illegal abortion pills.
They contact online forums seeking urgent help. In response, suppliers send their email addresses or phone numbers, offering drugs called mifepristone and misoprostol at prices up to Dh2,200 - far more than the cost in countries where abortion is legal.
None of the three suppliers we spoke to is a doctor and only one has any medical training. All are based in Dubai.
Pregnancy outside wedlock is punishable by law. It is a also crime for a woman to abort her pregnancy, unless the it endangers the mother's life or there is evidence that the baby will be born with fatal deformities and will not survive.
In the latter case, the foetus must be aborted before it is 120 days old. The abortion must also be approved by a medical panel.
Both mifepristone and misoprostol are controlled drugs, available legally only with a doctor's prescription and at certain facilities.
A Dubai Health Authority spokesman said no cases of illegal abortion services had been found at any of its facilities, and that any individuals found supplying them are charged with criminal intent.
"During all our inspections of the public and private healthcare sector in Dubai, we have not even come across one such case," he said. "Selling these pills is a criminal offence, and Dubai police cracks down on individuals who supply these pills." Dubai police were unavailable for comment.
Local doctors were disturbed and outraged when told of the practice.
"This is completely shocking. I never knew this was happening," said Dr Munira Furniturewala, a gynaecologist with Emirates Health Limited. "The illegal prescription of any drug is dangerous."
Excessive bleeding, infections, emotional and psychological problems, abdominal pain and vaginal discharge are among problems a woman faces if the medicine is not administered professionally, said Dr Karim Elmasry, a gynaecologist with Al Ain's Tawam Hospital.
"There's also the possibility that the treatment might fail," he said.
The illegal sellers we spoke to came from the Philippines. They said they supplied about 10 clients a year, mostly young Filipinas with low-paid jobs.
One of the suppliers is JC, a Filipina midwife who has been selling the drugs for nearly three years.
After becoming pregnant out of wedlock in 2009, she was unable to leave the country for an abortion. Instead, she looked for underground suppliers. "I found this seller from the Philippines and I took 25 tablets with no results," she said. "I then tracked down another supplier, from India, and the medicine worked." Her experience led her to start selling the pills.
On the Dubai black market, the average cost of a set of mifepristone and misoprostol tablets ranges from Dh1,200 to Dh2,200. It would cost about €35 (Dh159) in Europe, and as little as the equivalent of Dh36 in India.
World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines state termination at more than 63 days "requires an inpatient setting, and raises separate medical, legal and service issues." Yet, many illegal suppliers in Dubai tell women that their pills are safe and effective well into the fourth month of pregnancy.
EK, a Filipino based in Karama, said he offers "magic pills" that can end a 9-to-12-week pregnancy. The pills, which he receives from the UK and sells for Dh2,200 a set, are booster doses of mifepristone and misoprostol tablets.
Except for JC, who claims to have been a midwife, none of the suppliers has a medical background. EK said he gets instructions from his aunt, who is a gynaecologist.
Another supplier, called Satwa Seller, said he advised patients to follow the instructions that came with the drugs. But dosage instructions vary significantly between suppliers and none match the WHO recommendations.