Hundreds of messages from the data that contained pricing information indicate that the average cost of purchasing a purported pack of abortion pills on Telegram is currently $135.
WIRED’s investigation also indicates that the abortion pill ecosystem on Telegram is likely a small world. Analysis of the members and administrators who send messages in the groups and channels shows that many of the accounts are likely controlled by the same individuals. For example, a user going by the name Dr. Pooja Gupta has sent 1,500 messages across nine channels or groups advertising the sale of abortion pills. Dr. Pooja uses a WhatsApp number that is referenced by administrators in 14 additional channels. And some of them use similar names like Doctor Jain and Doctor Reenu. Many of these messages also referenced the same website.
After joining several of Dr. Pooja Gupta’s channels, WIRED reporters received a private Telegram message from a user known as Manisha Gupta offering medication abortion for $90. When WIRED reporters expressed interest in making a purchase, a person prepared the order and sent an image showing a blister pack of pills, and an envelope with that day’s date as well as the address WIRED provided for shipment. The return address written on the envelope was a location in Mumbai, India.
Still messaging on Telegram, a person then sent account information for Punjab National Bank and directed WIRED to submit payment through a service called Remitly. WIRED reporters did not complete the transaction. When asked whether they have had more US-based customers in recent months, the person said, “since new laws I am send to America much more.”
Some groups on Telegram have US-specific names or descriptions, like “Abortion Pills in Republican States,” but most have more generic names and claim to deliver to dozens of countries. For instance, one of the largest and most active channels in the data set dates from August 2021 and is apparently specifically geared toward delivering abortion pills to Dubai, Kuwait, Qatar, and the Philippines—all countries where legal access to abortion is restricted.
Last June, researchers from the security firm DarkOwl noticed a sharp increase in discussions on the dark web about connecting abortion-seekers in the US with abortifacients and other resources. Some vendors that already sold illegal drugs said they would begin selling medication abortion as well. At the time, though, the researchers said that they didn’t actually see abortion pills widely available for sale on most dark web markets, but that “they are available for purchase via threads in discussion forums, as well as classified-style advertisements on transient paste services.”
Ian Gray, director of analysis and research at the security firm Flashpoint, says that turning points like the Covid-19 pandemic or the fall of Roe for the US can spark trends in digital scams and illicit online sales. But a survey Gray conducted for WIRED of dark web advertising targeted at the US over the last year did not reveal a dramatic spike in content related to abortifacients.
“At a high level, it’s difficult to identify a significant increase in chatter related to abortion pills due to Roe v Wade being overturned last year,” Gray says. He notes, though, that “there are a limited number of posts within the past year in marketplaces, which may indicate demand. Most posts, at least on Twitter and some within Telegram, are in Brazilian Portuguese, likely due to a ban on abortion pills.”
As with many medical procedures, the stakes are extremely high in medication abortion. But the patchwork of laws and access in the US could make the landscape particularly fraught for patients in need who may eventually turn to illicit markets out of desperation.
Updated at 3 pm ET, June 23, 2023, with a statement from a Telegram spokesperson.