Abortion is highly restricted in Indonesia; self-administered misoprostol can safely induce an abortion. Brick and mortar pharmacies, a common place to purchase misoprostol off-label in other parts of the world, are monitored closely by the government authority in Indonesia which controls drugs so that they cannot function outside the law without risking arrest and prosecution. An online marketplace has sprung up in response that sells misoprostol through in-country distributors. Such procurement offers a level of safety and anonymity to the buyer and seller. So as to understand online access to misoprostol, we created a protocol to identify the most visible universe of sellers.
We carried out a mystery client methodology to replicate the experiences of women procuring misoprostol online. Our study consisted of five stages: (1) identify the universe of online sellers using the most common search terms, drawn from multiple platforms to capture diversity in interactions as well as products sold (2) remove duplicates across sites as determined by their telephone numbers (3) draw a roughly probability proportional to size sample (4) contact sellers as mystery clients through text/chat, depending on the platform, and engage with them and (5) attempt to purchase drugs offered by the seller. Descriptive statistics are presented.
The listing generated 727 sites: 441 websites, 153 marketplace sellers, and 133 Instagram profiles. After removing duplicate listings, we identified 281 unique sellers. We selected all sellers with greater than 12 listings, 60% of sellers with 4–12 listings, 50% of sellers with 2–3 listings, and 40% of sellers with only one listing. Mystery clients were able to send initial messages to 110 sellers, of which 16 never responded. The interaction progressed to purchasing misoprostol with 76 sellers, 64 of whom sent drugs.
As women seek to terminate unwanted pregnancies in legally restrictive settings, online sales of misoprostol must be considered. With the Covid pandemic constraining movement, the importance of this way of procuring misoprostol will likely become more appealing. Understanding this unregulated landscape is important if we are to try to improve women’s ability to safely conduct an abortion in highly restrictive settings.