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    The abortion process: Everything you need to know

    Updated 03 October 2022 |
    Published 01 July 2022
    Fact Checked
    Reviewed by EBCOG, the European Board & College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology
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    There’s a lot to understand about the abortion process — from deciding between the abortion pill and surgery, to how early or late on you can have an abortion. Here, an OB-GYN explains it all.

    Disclaimer: Abortion laws and medical practices vary according to where you live. Always check the status of abortion in your area.

    Abortion is a procedure many will experience in their lifetime, for a whole array of reasons. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 73 million abortions occur globally each year, which equates to almost 3 out of every 10 (29%) pregnancies ending in termination.

    It’s vital that the abortion process is done safely. While first and foremost, that means they should be carried out under the care of a licensed medical professional, it also means having a full understanding of what the procedure entails. Knowledge is power, after all.

    Here, with the help of OB-GYN (obstetrician and gynecologist) Dr. Jenna Flanagan, we explain the process of terminating a pregnancy: from the different types of abortion (abortion pills and surgical abortion) and how long an abortion takes, to how early you can have an abortion and what the expected recovery time is.

    What is an abortion?

    An abortion is the name given to any procedure that ends a pregnancy. Also known as the termination of a pregnancy, there are two types of abortion: medical and surgical. 

    That means a health care provider will either use medication (usually in the form of pills) to perform a medical abortion or an in-clinic surgical procedure to remove the pregnancy tissue (this is the embryo or the fetus — an embryo turns into a fetus at 8 weeks of pregnancy) as well as the placenta. The type of abortion you have largely depends on how many weeks pregnant you are, but there are other factors to consider, too, which we’ll explain later on. 

    In the UK, Germany, France, Italy, and New Zealand, most abortions are typically carried out before 12 weeks of pregnancy, while in the US, 93% of abortions take place before 13 weeks. Scroll down to read more on how early you can have a termination or when it might be too late to have an abortion.

    It’s worth noting that a miscarriage occurring before 20 weeks of pregnancy is sometimes called a “spontaneous abortion” in medical terminology. This can be a bit confusing because miscarriages aren’t a decision to end a pregnancy. If you want to read more on miscarriages and why they can happen, you can find all the information here.

    Abortion process: How to have a safe abortion

    Abortions should always be supervised (either in person or remotely) by a licensed health care professional. Before considering an abortion, you must always seek medical advice as soon as possible. “There are complications that can arise as a result of an abortion that have lasting health impacts or may be immediately dangerous to your health and body. Therefore, properly trained professionals  with experience, support staff, and follow-up plans are essential for safe abortion care,” says Dr. Flanagan.

    Laws on abortion differ by country and region. If you live in a place where abortion isn’t legally (or easily) accessible, it can be harder to get this advice. But wherever you live and whatever your circumstances, the fundamental thing to remember is to speak to a licensed medical professional before taking any steps toward having an abortion.

    "Seeking support prior to an abortion is a personal choice; however, it is likely better for your emotional and physical recovery"

    Support is important when it comes to making any firm decision about whether or not you want to continue with a pregnancy, because having an abortion is a major decision that can take its toll emotionally. Perhaps you have a partner, a family member, or a trusted friend you can discuss it with. If this doesn’t feel like an option for you, know that there are other avenues you can explore, such as a counselor or someone from an organization specializing in abortion. 

    “Seeking support prior to an abortion is a personal choice; however, it is likely better for your emotional and physical recovery to have the support of someone who trusts and supports you and your decision and health,” says Dr. Flanagan.

    If you decide to have an abortion in an area where it’s legal, a health care professional will make sure you undergo a series of pre-care tests beforehand. These will likely include an evaluation of your medical history and your overall health, a physical exam, and an ultrasound to confirm your pregnancy and to establish how many weeks pregnant you are. A blood test is also usually done to check your blood type and your hCG levels. You will also then be offered information and support to check that an abortion is definitely what you want (known as “informed consent”) to ensure you’re aware of the potential risks and to decide which procedure is best for you.