Know the facts about terminating a pregnancy.
Is abortion safe?
There’s a lot of misinformation out there about abortion. From when a fetus has a heartbeat or other human characteristics, to how much abortion hurts, well-funded groups use scare tactics to deter people from seeking abortions. Many of these groups also fund Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which masquerade as legitimate medical clinics, but use misinformation to frighten and shame people into remaining pregnant. Much of that misinformation comes in the form of gruesome details about the dangers of the practice.
So if you’ve heard that abortion is medically risky, you should know that people paid a lot of money to make sure you heard that information. And you should also know that no matter how you slice it, it’s just not true.
When performed by trained professionals in a safe environment, abortion is one of the safest procedures in medicine, with a rate of 0.7 deaths for every 100,000 abortions. Statistically, it’s safer than plastic surgery, and is responsible for about as many deaths per year as dental procedures and marathon running. Life-threatening health complications are significantly more likely with childbirth than they are with abortion.
In the United States, childbirth has a mortailty rate of 8.8 deaths per 100,000 live births—meaning giving birth is fourteen times more deadly than abortion, overall. The risk of death with abortion does increase for each week since the person’s last period, and by 20 weeks, the risk is about the same as childbirth. However, abortions after 20 weeks are very rare, and most are performed on wanted pregnancies that are threatening the life of the pregnant person or the fetus (or both), or people who could not logistically access abortion services before that time. One study showed that up to 87% of abortion deaths after 8 weeks could have been avoided if the patient had accessed abortion care sooner.
The bottom line: except in rare cases, abortion is an extremely safe procedure, and many of those who have died from abortion-related complications died because they could not access care sooner in their pregnancies. Overall, 91% of abortions take place at or before 13 weeks, when the risk of death is about 0.6 per 100,000 procedures.
What are the different types of abortions?
Generally speaking, abortion procedures are simpler and less invasive the earlier in your pregnancy you are. The vast majority of abortions can be performed with drugs or simple clinic procedures.
Medication—up to 10 weeks after your last period.
Until about 10 weeks, abortifacient drugs (drugs that terminate a pregnancy) are often used to end unwanted pregnancies. They pills can be taken at home, or in a medical clinic. Abortifacient drugs cause a miscarriage, so the experience is usually like a very heavy, abnormally crampy period.
Planned Parenthood has an in-depth walkthrough about what it’s like to use an abortion pill, including common questions people ask about the procedure.
Procedure—up to 15 weeks after your last period
Up to 15 weeks, suction abortion is the most common abortion procedure. Depending on how far into the pregnancy you are, the doctor may need to dilate (open) your cervix, or they may not. This procedure is normally done on an exam table in the same position as you are for a pap smear or pelvic exam. The doctor will open your vagina with a speculum, swab the area with antiseptic, and use a small injection to numb your cervix. After that, they’ll insert a small tube into your uterus to remove its contents. The whole procedure only takes a few minutes.
Some people find this procedure painful, while others just find it uncomfortable. Your doctor will make sure you’re as comfortable as possible, in some cases administering drugs to make you feel relaxed and calm, or to help with the pain.
You can read Planned Parenthood’s detailed walkthrough here.
Dilation and curettage (D&C)—up to 15 weeks after your last period
In this method, the cervix is dilated to allow for the insertion of a tool called a curette, which is used to scrape the pregnancy tissue from the inside of the uterus. The World Health Organization only recommends this method if suction methods aren’t available, if the doctor believes there is tissue left over from either a medical or suction abortion, or if the pregnancy tissue needs to be tested or examined.
Dilation and evacuation (D&E)—16-26 weeks after your last period
For later-term abortions, this procedure is the standard in the United States. Similar to a suction abortion, this method involves dilating the cervix to allow access. Then, a combination of suction and medical devices is used to remove the pregnancy tissue. This procedure is usually done under general anesthesia or heavy sedation.
Planned Parenthood has an in-depth walkthrough of the process here. There is a version of this procedure that involves less risk of complication, called intact D&E, or IDX. With IDX, the fetus is removed all at once. Although at the time it represented only 0.17% of abortions performed in the US, this method was banned in the United States in 2003, using the inaccurate and inflammatory term “partial-birth abortion.”
Other methods—over 26 weeks
Abortions over 26 weeks are very rare, making up only about 1.6% of all abortions. They are typically more invasive and done either for the health of the pregnant person or due to major complications that would result in severe damage or death to the fetus. In some cases, it’s possible to perform a D&E, but in others, riskier procedures like a hysterotomy (similar to a caesarean section) and hysterectomy (removal of the entire uterus) are used to end the pregnancy.
If you need an abortion…
Throughout history, people have used any means at their disposal—such as herbal remedies and blows to the abdomen—to end unwanted pregnancies. None of these are safe or reliable. If you are considering an abortion and have questions, or if you’re having trouble accessing services in your area, don’t look for alternatives to safe medical care. Call your doctor if you can, call Planned Parenthood in your state, or check out these resources from the National Network of Abortion Funds. Even if you think you can’t afford or access reproductive care, reach out to providers—they will know how to help you find transportation, logistical support, and in some cases even funding.
Remember, legitimate abortion providers will never try to pressure you into a choice, and they will never make you feel guilty for having sex or becoming pregnant, regardless of how it happened. They are equally happy to share accurate, sex-positive information on safe and healthy pregnancies, safer sex, birth control, adoption, and abortion. And they’re willing to discuss it with you until you feel safe and comfortable.
You don’t have to go through the uncertainty alone! Abortion access is getting more and more uncertain in the US, but abortion is still your legal right in all 50 states. There are organizations dedicated to ensuring you have access to real allies who will make sure you’re supported and informed—no matter what you choose.