Women in Lesotho are finding abortion pills and their providers on Facebook. Abortion, a matter of common law rather than statutory law in Lesotho, is illegal in all cases except those that threaten the life of the mother according to the UN country report.
In addition to legal obstacles, women in Lesotho face threats of social isolation, similar to women in the United States, where abortion can also be a taboo topic. These societal implications coupled with the legal restrictions of the nation drive women to seek out an alternative path.
This alternative path is Facebook, the most popular form of social media in Lesotho. Abortion “providers” create Facebook pages and post advertisements for their services on the platform. Then, they encourage women to reach out to them using WhatsApp, a common messaging application, to set a price and a time to meet.
In their report of the phenomenon, CNN went undercover as a 15-year-old girl seeking an abortion to find out what the process was really like.
This conversation gives us a harrowing glimpse of how these interactions begin. I decided to take a look and find out for myself just how easy it would be to find someone advertising abortion services in Lesotho. A simple Facebook search of “abortion in Lesotho” yielded quite a few results.
Facebook even provided some handy links for me, in case the provider pages didn’t suit my needs.
The pages are clearly not professional, utilizing fear tactics and stock photos related to pregnancy to draw women in. The owners of these pages are often not real medical doctors and, therefore, are unable to provide accurate medical information or safe abortion services.
Mpho*, a woman who contacted a Facebook user to receive abortion pills, told CNN that she didn’t trust the doctor and thought he cared only about her money. Considering the fact that he abruptly raised the price immediately after the procedure, Mpho may have been right.
“It was the most uncomfortable and disgusting ten minutes of my life,” she said. After enduring a painful procedure in a back room with an unfamiliar man making inappropriate comments, Mpho was still pregnant.
She tried again, this time purchasing the pills through a friend’s contact. A few hours later, Mpho woke up in a pool of blood, cold and drifting in and out of consciousness. She refused to go to the hospital for fear of being arrested and she still hasn’t been to see a doctor, 5 months later.
Facebook has given a platform to those responsible for the mistreatment of Mpho and so many others.
Even the head of Lesotho’s family health division of the Ministry of Health, Dr. Limpho Maile, said they advise women to leave Lesotho for South Africa and access abortion services there, where they are legal. 13 percent of women and girls are admitted to Lesotho’s hospitals due to unsafe abortion procedures. However, because of the social taboo, that statistic reflects only the percentage of women and girls who felt it was safe or necessary to disclose that they did, in fact, have an abortion.
The UN country report specifically stated that it remains illegal in the country to seek an abortion in order to preserve physical or mental health, in cases of rape or incest, in the case of fetal impairment, for economic or social reasons, or simply at request. South Africa’s abortion policy, however, allows the procedure in all of the aforementioned cases, including at request.
According to UNICEF, the maternal mortality rate in Lesotho in 2015 was 487 deaths per 100,000 live births. This is a fair amount higher than the rate in South Africa, 138, and astronomically higher than the rate here in the United States, 14. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 9 percent of maternal deaths in Africa in 2014 were due to complications from unsafe abortion procedures.
When abortion is illegal, women with unwanted pregnancies turn to unsafe situations. The media-related issue here is that Facebook is being utilized to promote and advertise unsafe and illegitimate medical services. Fraudulent abortion providers are exploiting Facebook and, in turn, endangering women’s lives.
The platform’s privacy practices have recently been under major scrutiny, but its promotion of illegitimate and unsafe services have been underreported.
Facebook is already under fire for a data breach that gave the political analysis firm Cambridge Analytica access to the information of 50 million Facebook users without any form of consent. On Tuesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg agreed to testify in front of Congress about the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the company’s current practices.
Between Russian fake news bots, the Cambridge Analytica breach, and Lesotho’s fake abortion providers, it will be interesting to watch the future of Facebook unfold. To avoid the threat of government regulation and bounce back from these scandals, Facebook will likely need to make some fundamental changes in order to stop the manipulation and exploitation of its users.
*Mpho’s real name was changed at her request.