Sexual Health > Reproductive Health > Reproductive Health - Abortion

The Facts About Abortion

Women considering abortion should understand the principal facts about the procedure itself.

A woman sits leaning against a white wall as she looks off to the side.

Of all the medical and personal considerations a pregnant woman must consider, none are more monumental than a possibility for an abortion. An abortion decision can be even more taxing because of new hormonal changes influencing her physical body and mental well-being.

Regardless of the circumstances that prompt a possible decision for abortion, it is important to be aware of this medical procedure's basic functions and to know support is available.

What is abortion?

In simple terms, abortion is a medical procedure performed to end a pregnancy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the formal definition of abortion is, "an intervention performed by a licensed clinician (e.g., a physician, nurse-midwife, nurse practitioner, physician assistant) within the limits of state regulations that is intended to terminate a suspected or known ongoing intrauterine pregnancy and that does not result in a live birth.”

There are two types of abortion: medical and procedural. There are different risks and benefits to each, and the ability to choose between the two depends on how far along the pregnancy is. If you are four to nine weeks pregnant, you can choose a medical abortion, and if you are six to 14 weeks, you can elect a procedural abortion.

Women who have abortions

According to the National Abortion Federation, about half of all pregnancies are unplanned and half of those end in an abortion—resulting in 1.3 million abortions each year in the United States. Women ages 15 to 24 account for the majority of abortions, and women over the age of 35 have the lowest rates.

The most common reason women choose to have an abortion is due to a lack of financial stability and/or not being ready to have a child. The majority of those women—more than 65 percent—plan to have children later, when they are further along in their career or relationship and feel more ready to be a parent. Other reasons include potential medical complications or the pregnancy being a result of rape or incest.

Regardless of why a woman has made this decision, the choice is rarely simple.

Types of abortion

Medical abortions use medication to end a pregnancy. Mifepristone and misoprostol are two of the most common types of medications used for inducing abortion. Mifepristone blocks the action of the hormone progesterone, which prevents the "thickening" of the uterine lining required for an embryo to stay implanted. Misoprostol causes the contraction of the uterus, an action that expels the embryo through the vagina.

Procedural abortions are surgeries performed by a healthcare provider to remove the fetus and end the pregnancy. Procedural abortions are also known as surgical abortions. There are several ways a fetus can be surgically removed, and the pregnant person must work with her healthcare provider to choose the best method. Two of the most common procedural abortions are vacuum aspiration and dilation and curettage:

  • Vacuum aspiration is one of the most common methods used during the first trimester. Manual vacuum aspiration (MVA), or menstrual extraction, employs a suction and membrane syringe to remove the embryo, placenta and some uterine tissues. A slightly different variation of this method is electric vacuum aspiration. A cannula, or tube, is attached to tubing that is attached to the vacuum. The tube is inserted into the uterus after the cervix has been dilated.
  • Dilation and curettage (D&C) is a surgical method with two steps: The dilation of the cervix, followed by the removal of tissue (curettage) through the use of suction and surgical instruments. D&C is not exclusively used for abortion—it is a frequently employed medical procedure to diagnose and treat other uterine conditions.

Risks and considerations

Both medical and procedural abortions are generally safe. Nevertheless, it is important to be aware of the risks, which include perforation of the uterus, damage to the cervix, scarring of the uterine wall, prolonged bleeding and infection. Talk to your doctor to select the best method of abortion that poses the least risk for you.

The most common reason women choose to have an abortion is due to a lack of financial stability and/or not being ready to have a child.

Knowing what to expect before, during and after an abortion can be helpful.

Before the procedure, once informed of your decision, the doctor will likely conduct a medical exam to confirm your pregnancy, evaluate your medical history and health, and possibly conduct some blood tests and take some vaginal/cervical cultures to rule out infection. A pelvic ultrasound is a common measure to date the pregnancy. You will then discuss the various options with your doctor.

If you opt for medical abortion, your clinician will guide you on the dose, frequency, potential side effects and route of administration—orally versus vaginally—of the chosen medication. (Sometimes a medical abortion may require a D&C if not all of the tissue is passed. It is important to have a close follow-up for this type of abortion.) If you're having a surgical abortion, your clinician will explain how the selected procedure works, including what type of sedation or anesthesia will be used, as well as possible side effects, risks and complications.


After a procedural abortion, your doctor will recommend a follow-up visit to ensure that you are healing properly, initiate a birth control regimen (if needed) and ensure you're not at risk for infection or other complications. You may experience cramping for a short time after the procedure. Most doctors recommend you wait a week or two after the procedure before having intercourse to lower the chances of infection.

If you opt for a medical abortion, it's common to experience strong cramping, nausea and a few weeks of bleeding (similar to a period). In rare cases, an infection can happen and a doctor will prescribe antibiotics.

Additionally, you may experience a wide range of difficult emotions, so be sure to let your doctor know if you would like a recommendation for professional assistance.

There is no evidence indicating that either a medical or a procedural abortion will impair a woman's ability to have a child later in life.

Your choice

As with any legal medical procedure, you need to weigh all your options before you and your doctor make a decision. If appropriate, allow your partner to help you with your plans.

You should also consider reaching out to support groups where members share their experiences and offer advice. You're not alone, and many women find comfort and support in the camaraderie of in-person groups, online forums or with their own friends and family.