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Drone delivers abortion pill to women in Northern Ireland

In a protest against the country's abortion laws, women's advocacy groups airdrop medicine using a remote-controlled aircraft.

Women on Waves conducted its first abortion pill drone flight in 2015.

Mark Godefroy/Women on Waves

Women's advocacy groups have used a drone to send abortion pills to women in Northern Ireland. In a protest against abortion laws in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Dutch group Women on Waves teamed up with Northern Irish group Alliance for Choice, Irish group Rosa and Northern Irish group Labour Alternative to airlift the medicine.

The drone was flown across the border from County Louth in the Republic of Ireland to Narrow Water Castle in County Down, just after 10 a.m. local time on June 21. Women there took pills containing the abortifacient drugs mifepristone and misoprostol, which are listed as essential medicines by the World Health Organisation.

In Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK but not covered by its Abortion Act, it is unlawful to perform an abortion except in the case where it is required to save the life of the mother, or if the pregnancy poses a risk to the physical or mental health of the mother. Penalties can be as severe as life imprisonment, although this occurs rarely; a Belfast woman earlier this year was handed a suspended sentence for taking abortion pills procured over the internet.

In the Republic of Ireland, it is unlawful to perform an abortion unless the mother's life is at risk, with a potential sentence of 14 years' imprisonment.

Women swallow abortion pills in Northern Ireland.

Women on Waves

If a woman in either country wants an abortion, she generally has to travel to the UK mainland to get one from a private clinic, at personal expense. According to statistics from the UK Department of Health, at least 3,451 women travelled to England and Wales for abortions in 2015. Just 16 abortions were performed in Northern Ireland during 2014 and 2015.

And of course, this number doesn't include the women who are trapped in Ireland because they cannot afford the cost of the trip and the private clinic, or cannot obtain a passport.

"Abortion is criminalised in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. We sent the pills across the border today as an act of solidarity with women in NI who are currently facing prosecutions," said Rosa's Rita Harrold in a statement. "This is outrageous. Today's action is a clear message of intent -- north and south, we will build an unstoppable movement of women and young people until women have the right to control their own bodies."

According to Women on Waves, the fact that the countries have different laws means it's not illegal to deliver abortion pills via drone across the border, and the UK's laws regarding electronic prescriptions are still applicable in Northern Ireland. The drone also delivered legal prescriptions from a doctor registered with the EU.

Police officers were nearby to photograph the event, but did not intervene.

Women on Waves conducted its first abortion pill drone flight in June 2015, delivering the drugs to Poland from Germany.