What is Abortion?

Abortion is a medical procedure that ends a pregnancy. It’s also called a termination. In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at the abortion procedure, unpack how abortion pills work, plus we’ll cover how terminating a pregnancy can temporarily affect your menstrual cycle. Read on to learn more…

Abortion pills illustration

Abortion methods

If you are pregnant and want or need to terminate the pregnancy, there are two ways to get an abortion: you’ll either be given abortion pills, or you can have a surgical procedure to remove the pregnancy. To access these methods you may need to visit a hospital or a clinic such as Planned Parenthood

The abortion procedure

Getting an abortion can involve several steps and a healthcare professional may need to confirm the pregnancy with ultrasound or blood tests before the abortion procedure can begin. Once it does, terminating a pregnancy is relatively quick, and you’ll usually go home the same day as the procedure.

Factors such as how long you’ve been pregnant, where you access the service, and your own health, may influence the type of abortion procedure offered. Below is a breakdown of how different abortion procedures work:

Abortion pills

There are actually two types of abortion pills needed to terminate a pregnancy. The first pill you take is called mifepristone. This works by stopping the hormone progesterone, preventing the pregnancy from developing any further. 

The second medicine is either taken right away or with a break of up to 48 hours. These pills are called misoprostol and are either taken orally or placed in the vagina. Misoprostol causes cramping and bleeding to empty the uterus. If this doesn’t happen within 24 hours of taking the second medication, contact your doctor or clinic.

You will be given both pills at your appointment. When and where you take them may depend on the laws in the state or country you are getting the abortion. Some people prefer to use abortion pills because they can be taken at home, meaning you can rest and be comfortable in your own space with a family member, partner or friend there with you - or you can do it on your own if you prefer.

It’s normal to experience very heavy bleeding and cramping after taking the second abortion medication. Just as with a very heavy period, you can take measures to manage the pain such as using heat packs, painkillers and rest. The bleeding may continue for a couple of weeks after the initial heavy bleed. If you experience heavy bleeding for a prolonged period of time make sure you contact your health care professional. 

Types of in-clinic abortions

There are two types of in-clinic abortion procedures. To make you more comfortable, local anesthetic/conscious sedation is usually offered, and while the procedure is pretty quick, you should be prepared to be at the clinic for a few hours on the day of the appointment. Keep in mind that while you can usually go home the same day, you may want to allow some recovery time at home after the procedure.

Suction abortion

Also known as vacuum aspiration, this is the most common in-clinic option. It is a quick abortion procedure that involves a delicate suction process that empties the uterus. This usually takes around five to ten minutes, and you can usually go home within a few hours of the procedure. Some people prefer this type of abortion procedure because it’s quick and will be carried out in the clinic directly by healthcare professionals. 

Dilation and evacuation (D&E)

This type of in-clinic abortion procedure uses suction and medical tools to empty the uterus. D&E is usually used later in pregnancy, and takes around ten to twenty minutes to complete. Most people will be able to go home the same day.

When can you get an abortion?

The laws around accessing abortion vary from country to country and state to state. There are also different rules around accessing abortion depending on how far through a pregnancy you are. In some countries in the world it is illegal to access abortion altogether, or it may only be available in certain circumstances, such as medical risks caused by the pregnancy.

How late can you get an abortion?

When it comes to how late you can get an abortion in the US, abortion laws vary between states. For example, in New York State you can access abortion until around 29 weeks of pregnancy. Whereas in Texas, abortion can only be legally accessed during the first six weeks of the pregnancy. 

In the UK, abortion can be carried out in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. Whereas in Sweden abortion is accessible for the first 18 weeks of pregnancy. In some circumstances it is also possible to access abortion later in the pregnancy.

How early can you get an abortion?

Depending on how early you get a positive pregnancy test, you may have to wait to get an abortion until you’re into the fifth or sixth week of pregnancy (one or two weeks after a missed period). This varies from clinic to clinic so if you’re very early on in pregnancy, but still have a positive test result, it’s best to book an appointment and discuss your options as false test results are extremely rare.

Is abortion painful?

A medical abortion can cause strong cramping. These may last for several hours, you can manage symptoms with painkillers and rest. If you’re having an in-clinic abortion procedure, you will likely receive local anesthetic, although you may still expect to feel some cramping for the duration of the treatment. 

How effective are abortions?

Abortions are highly effective. How well the abortion procedure works depends on a number of factors, including the type of abortion, and how many weeks through the pregnancy it’s performed. 

For example, the abortion pill is 94%-98% successful for those who are eight weeks pregnant, while in-clinic abortion is around 99% effective. If abortions don’t work the first time, you may need to have a repeat procedure, but this is very rare.

Why am I still testing pregnant after having an abortion?

It can take a bit of time for your hormones to readjust after the abortion procedure. It may take two weeks before you start seeing a negative result on a pregnancy test. Talk to your doctor if you continue to get a positive result after this time.

Abortion pills by mail

During the pandemic, some people were able to access abortion pills by mail. This allowed for safe, at-home abortions when it wasn’t possible or easy to access clinics. Some states have continued to offer this service, but it’s best to check with your healthcare provider to see if it’s an option where you live. 

Never take uncertified medicine that claims to terminate pregnancy - always talk to a medical professional to seek safe and certified treatment.

Risks of abortion 

Abortions are an incredibly safe medical procedure, but no medical procedure is 100% risk-free. The chances of having fertility problems in the future are also extremely rare, but there is a very small risk of this if there are complications with the abortion procedure.

What is spontaneous abortion?

Spontaneous abortion is a type of pregnancy loss or miscarriage that happens before you’re 20 weeks pregnant. Pregnancy loss is common but is still a difficult and not-talked-about topic. Learn more about the different types of miscarriage to find out more. 

When will my cycle go back to normal after an abortion?

It can take time for hormones to go back to their previous levels, and you may notice your first menstrual cycle after an abortion is longer than usual. Your cycles should adjust quite quickly, and you should be getting your periods back as normal around four to eight weeks after the procedure.

When can you have sex after having an abortion?

This is very individual and it’s up to you when you feel ready. Some doctors may recommend waiting until vaginal bleeding stops. Wait until you’re ready and don’t feel the urge to jump back into things, as having sex before you’re physically or emotionally ready may lead to pain during sex.

Can you get pregnant after having an abortion?

Yes. Although it can take time for things to go back to normal, you are at risk of becoming pregnant again straight away. To avoid unintended pregnancy, make sure you choose a birth control method that’s right for you and your body.

Preventing pregnancy with Natural Cycles

At Natural Cycles, we’re passionate about birth control choice. We want everyone to access a multitude of options so they can find the best one for them. Natural Cycles was the first app to be cleared by the FDA and offers a hormone-free alternative that’s 93% effective with typical use and 98% effective when used perfectly.

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Written By

Jennifer Gray

A writer with a passion for women’s health, Jennifer Gray has years of experience writing about various reproductive health topics including birth control, planning pregnancy, women’s anatomy, and so much more.

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Scientifically Reviewed

Jack Pearson

With 10 years of experience working in the field of fertility, Dr. Jack Pearson is Natural Cycles’ in-house expert. As Medical Affairs Manager, he dedicates his time to conducting groundbreaking research and educating healthcare professionals.

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