"I was truly startled when our team discovered that, in at least eight European countries, activists are providing women with a ‘treatment’ based on pseudo-science under the nose of regulators."
“It can’t be happening in Europe!” This was the first reaction of my European friends and colleagues when they heard about our team’s findings – how doctors globally, backed by US religious conservatives, are providing women with an unproven and potentially dangerous treatment that claims to 'reverse' a medical abortion.
Like my friends and colleagues, I’ve always thought that Europe is the best part of the world in which to be a woman. This assumption is not baseless: according to the latest survey, European countries are among the best places for women to live, thanks to their high regard for human rights, gender equality and safety.
Given this, I was truly startled **when our team of feminist investigative **journalists discovered that, in at least eight European countries, activists from US Christian Right group Heartbeat International are providing women with a ‘treatment’ based on pseudo-science under the nose of regulators.
So-called "abortion pill reversal" (APR) claims to interrupt the termination of a pregnancy. It was invented by an anti-abortion doctor in California and involves taking high doses of progesterone, a hormone, following the first of two pills used for a medical abortion.
In reality, the procedure is so dangerous that the only medical trial into the ‘treatment’ to date had to be halted in 2019 after some participants were hospitalised with severe haemorrhaging.
From Armenia to the UK
While coordinating our investigation into APR in Europe, I became sad and miserable. Our undercover reporters who called the US hotline run by Heartbeat were quickly connected to local doctors, who were willing to offer prescriptions for progesterone by phone or email. No ultrasound, no follow-up, no responsibility for the prescribed "treatment".
The consent form produced by Heartbeat and sent to all our undercover reporters states that they understand that APR is an “off-label use of progesterone” and that they should “seek emergency medical care immediately” if they experience pain.
The only medical trial into ‘abortion pill reversal’ was halted after some participants experienced severe haemorrhaging In the UK, when asked about the potential health risks of trying to ‘reverse’ an abortion, the doctor told our reporter: “At the end of the day, you live in the UK, you’ve got a hospital there and if you were worried about the bleeding, you’d go get help.”
We also found evidence of abortion pill reversal in Lithuania. Medical abortions are illegal in Lithuania, but some women choose to buy the required drugs online, for home use. Our reporter posed as a woman who took the first abortion drug this way, then started having second thoughts.
“You have the right to change your mind,” a woman in the US told our Lithuanian reporter when she called the hotline number. “I want to encourage you in that and I would be happy to explain the reversal.”
Our reporter was then connected to a doctor in Lithuania, who was willing to give her a prescription for progesterone and assured her that its use is “safe if a woman is healthy”.
Another reporter was connected to a sex therapist (not a doctor) in Armenia, who told her that “all the medical risks together can’t stop the development of this miracle of nature.”
In Ukraine, the doctor who contacted our reporter explained how to get the required pills from a local pharmacy, adding that “there should be no problems at all.”
In Spain, our reporter was emailed a prescription by a local doctor, who said it has “no risks” and, in fact, “it will do you a lot of good.”
In Belgium, Croatia, Germany and Russia, US-based nurses could not connect reporters directly to local providers of APR. Instead, they emailed them instructions to take to a local hospital or pharmacy where they could get the medication.
It is unclear how many women’s health has been at stake globally because of this ‘treatment’.
‘Medical guinea pigs’
European and British parliamentarians condemned the doctors involved in these activities as “irresponsible charlatans [who] misuse women as medical guinea pigs”.
Thankfully, not everything is lost: the UK doctor identified in our investigation is currently banned by the General Medical Council from practising medicine without supervision, pending a further review of her activities.
This is a unique example of a national regulator stepping in to protect women from being used as "guinea pigs". Other European countries should follow the UK’s action – especially as it’s not the first time that US ultra-conservatives, sponsored by dark money, have threatened the health, rights and well-being of women in Europe.
Last year, openDemocracy revealed that the US Christian Right spent more money in Europe than anywhere else internationally. We found that the money was mainly used to target European courts and provide women with misinformation about their rights and health.
Now is the time for European medical regulators to prove that the "old continent" is still the best place to be a woman. Will they take action?
Tatev Hovhannisyan is Europe & Eurasia assistant editor at openDemocracy.