Abortion means ending a pregnancy before the fetus (unborn child) can live independently outside the mother. If abortion happens spontaneously before 24 weeks of pregnancy, it is called a miscarriage. An induced (or "therapeutic") abortion is caused deliberately in order to end the pregnancy.
In the 1973 case of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court sanctioned a woman's right to choose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Since that ruling, courts have upheld this decision, with certain modifications over the years.
The decision to have an abortion is extremely personal and varies drastically from individual to individual. If you are considering an abortion, think carefully about what is right for you before taking action. This includes not just how you feel now, but how this might affect you in the future. Consulting your parents, doctor or another trusted adult can help you with this choice. Counselors at women's health clinics, such as Planned Parenthood, can provide information about different options (such as abortion, adoption or parenting) and the effect that each might have.
Abortions are (most safely) done in the first trimester (before the 12th week of pregnancy). Pregnancy weeks are counted from the first day of the woman's most recent menstrual period. The type of abortion performed depends on how far the pregnancy has progressed.
There are several procedures used including medical and surgical abortions.
Back to top
During the first 49 days of pregnancy, a medical termination is possible without surgery. Medical abortion uses two different drugs, methotrexate or mifepristone, which may be followed by another drug called misoprostol. While these drugs cause an abortion without surgical procedures such as dilation and vacuum, they do take longer to work than surgical abortion. Medical abortion involves several appointments at the physician's office or clinic, and it often results in a fair amount of cramping and bleeding at home. A medical abortion is only effective within the first 49 days of pregnancy. If a medical abortion isn't successful, you'll need a surgical abortion (if you still want an abortion).
Back to top
Vacuum aspiration (the suction method) is the most common type of abortion. It is a surgical procedure that involves anesthesia (mild sedation) and can be performed within the first trimester of pregnancy. During vacuum aspiration, the cervix (opening of the uterus) is gently dilated (widened) about a quarter-inch, a narrow tube is inserted through the vagina and cervix to the uterus, and then pregnancy and contents of the uterine internal lining are vacuumed out. The procedure takes only a couple minutes and the woman can usually return home later in the day.
Abortions are rare in the second trimester, which begins in the 13th week of pregnancy. During this type of abortion, a medication called prostaglandin is given in a clinic. This results in uterine contractions, which can last several hours, and is usually accompanied by some anesthesia. Many doctors who perform first-trimester abortions do not perform second-trimester abortions.
Second-trimester abortions are usually done for pregnancies with medical complications. There are usually only a few centers in an area that do them. "Elective" abortions are not done after 23 weeks. Third-trimester abortions (after 24 weeks) are only performed in cases of severely deformed fetuses or when the mother's life is in danger.
Back to top
To learn about the abortion facts in your state, check out the Guttmacher Institute's State Center