Small island exigencies and a legacy of colonial jurisprudence set the stage for this three-year study in 2001-2003 of abortion practice on several islands of the northeast Caribbean: St. Martin, St. Maarten, Anguilla, Antigua and St Kitts. Based on in-depth interviews with 26 physicians, 16 of whom were performing abortions, it found that licensed physicians are routinely providing abortions in contravention of the law, and that those services, tolerated by governments and legitimised by European norms, are clearly the mainstay of abortion care on these islands. Medical abortion was being used both under medical supervision and through self-medication. Women travelled to find anonymous services, and also to access a particular method, provider or facility. Sometimes they settled for a less acceptable method if they could not afford a more comfortable one. Significantly, legality was not the main determinant of choice. Most abortion providers accepted the current situation as satisfactory. However, our findings suggest that restrictive laws were hindering access to services and compromising quality of care. Whereas doctors may have the liberty and knowledge to practise illegal abortions, women have no legal right to these services. Interviews suggest that an increasing number of women are self-inducing misoprostol abortions to avoid doctors, high fees and public stigma. The Caribbean Initiative on Abortion and Contraception is organising meetings, training providers and creating a public forum to advocate decriminalisation of abortion and enhance abortion care.