In Lesotho, women say they're finding their abortions on Facebook
Updated 5:46 AM ET, Thu March 8, 2018
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Editor's Note: CNN is committed to covering gender inequality wherever it occurs in the world. This story is part of As Equals, a year-long series.
Maseru, Lesotho — Mpho opened a new chat on WhatsApp, entered an unfamiliar number, and typed a question she never thought she would have to ask.
Mpho, who asked that CNN not use her real name, didn't know who she was talking to. She found the phone number on a Facebook post while searching for "abortion pills, Lesotho" online. The person reading her messages claimed to be a doctor.
In Lesotho, a remote country home to just 2.2 million people and surrounded by South Africa, abortion is strictly illegal, apart from in life-threatening cases.
Women who have abortions in Lesotho face being outcast from their communities, or arrested.
As a result, many are driven to the anonymity of the Internet. Mpho, 27, found contact details on Facebook for several men claiming to be doctors, all hawking abortion pills.
A quick search on Facebook yields dozens of different pages and events advertising abortions, many featuring stock images of white women popping tablets, or holding their pregnant bellies. Their posts offer "safe" abortion pills. All sell the same hope to young women in Lesotho.
Facebook is by far the most popular social media network in Lesotho. The overwhelming number of ads were found on that platform, but could be on other sites too.
Facebook and WhatsApp did not respond to multiple requests for comment from CNN.
CNN spoke with nine women who had taken illegal abortion pills they sourced online. The women — aged between 17 and 30 — echoed the same story: they turned to Facebook in search of abortion services and connected with people claiming to be doctors online. Of the women who spoke to CNN, none believed their procedure was safe. All said they experienced extensive bleeding and faintness following the pills. None sought medical attention.
A spokesperson for Lesotho's Ministry of Health told CNN that illegal abortion procedures are a big problem in the country, where hospital admissions among women and girls (age 13 and older) due to abortion are 13%. And this data could be significantly underreported.
The ministry hasn't been able to determine the precise number of women who have had health complications, or died, as a result of unsafe abortion procedures, because most women don't disclose whether they've had a procedure in the first place.
"What we mostly see are women who are admitted to our health facilities with incomplete abortion(s)," Dr. Limpho Maile, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health, said. "But without the patient disclosing that it was done illegally we cannot differentiate it from the normal patients needing this service due to miscarriages."
Maile told CNN that the Ministry of Health was not aware of any Facebook pages or events advertising abortion pills in Lesotho, but did know of advertisements for abortions in local papers.