Health A to Z
An abortion is the medical process of ending a pregnancy so it doesn't result in the birth of a baby.
It's also sometimes known as a termination.
The pregnancy is ended either by taking medications or having a minor surgical procedure.
One in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime.
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Abortions can only be carried out in an NHS hospital or a licensed clinic, and are usually available free of charge on the NHS.
There are three main ways to get an abortion on the NHS:
Waiting times can vary, but you shouldn't have to wait more than two weeks from your initial appointment to having an abortion.
Abortions can also be paid for privately if you prefer. Costs for private abortions vary depending on the stage of pregnancy and the method used to carry out the procedure.
Most abortions in England, Wales and Scotland are carried out before 24 weeks of pregnancy.
They can be carried out after 24 weeks in certain circumstances – for example, if the mother's life is at risk or the child would be born with a severe disability.
The length of your pregnancy is calculated from the first day of your last period. If you're not sure how long you've been pregnant, you may need an ultrasound scan to check.
Abortions are simpler and safer the earlier they're carried out. Getting advice early on will give you more time to make a decision if you're unsure.
Some women may be certain they want to have an abortion, while others may find it more difficult to make a decision.
The decision to have an abortion is yours alone. But all women requesting an abortion should be offered the opportunity to discuss their options and choices with, and receive support from, a trained pregnancy counsellor.
Impartial information and support is available from:
You may also want to speak to your partner, friends or family, but you don't need to discuss it with anyone else and they don't have a say in the final decision.
If you don't want to tell anyone, your details will be kept confidential. If you're under 16, your parents don't usually need to be told. Information about an abortion doesn't go on your medical record.
Before having an abortion, you'll attend an appointment to talk about your decision and what happens next.
Whenever possible, you should be given a choice of how you would like the abortion to be carried out.
There are two options:
After an abortion, you'll probably need to take things easy for a few days. It's likely you'll experience some discomfort and vaginal bleeding for up to two weeks.
Read more about how an abortion is carried out.
Abortions are safest if they're carried out as early as possible in pregnancy.
Most women won't experience any problems, but there is a small risk of complications, such as:
If complications do occur, further treatment – including surgery – may be required.
Having an abortion won't affect your chances of becoming pregnant again and having normal pregnancies in the future.
In fact, you may be able to get pregnant immediately afterwards and should use contraception if you want to avoid this.
Read more about the risks of abortion.
Abortions can only be carried out in hospitals or licensed clinics.
You won't usually need to stay in the clinic or hospital overnight, but you may need to attend several appointments on different days.
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Before having an abortion, you'll need to attend an assessment appointment at the hospital or clinic.
During this assessment, you may:
When you're sure you want to go ahead with the abortion, you'll be asked to sign a consent form and a date for the abortion will be arranged. You can change your mind at any point up to the start of the procedure.
There are two main types of abortion:
Medical and surgical abortions can generally only be carried out up to 24 weeks of pregnancy.
But in exceptional circumstances an abortion can take place after 24 weeks – for example, if there's a risk to life or there are problems with the baby's development.
You should be offered a choice of which method you would prefer whenever possible.
A medical abortion involves taking medication to end the pregnancy. It doesn't require surgery or an anaesthetic, and can be used at any stage of pregnancy.
It involves the following steps:
If a medical abortion is carried out after nine weeks, you may need more doses of misoprostol and you're more likely to need to stay in the clinic or hospital. Occasionally, the pregnancy doesn't pass and a small operation is needed to remove it.
There are two methods.
Can be used up to 15 weeks of pregnancy. It involves inserting a tube through the entrance to the womb (the cervix) and into your womb. The pregnancy is then removed using suction.
Your cervix will be gently widened (dilated) first. A tablet may be placed inside your vagina or taken by mouth a few hours beforehand to soften your cervix and make it easier to open.
Pain relief is usually given using medicines that you take by mouth, and local anaesthetic, which is numbing medicine injected into the cervix. You may also be offered some sedation, which is given by injection. A general anaesthetic isn't usually needed.
Vacuum aspiration takes about 5 to 10 minutes and most women go home a few hours later.
Used from around 15 weeks of pregnancy. It involves inserting special instruments called forceps through the cervix and into the womb to remove the pregnancy.
The cervix is gently dilated for several hours or up to a day before the surgery to allow the forceps to be inserted.
D&E is carried out with conscious sedation or general anaesthetic. It normally takes about 10 to 20 minutes and you might be able to go home the same day.
If you have a medical abortion, you may experience shortlived side effects from the medications, such as nausea and diarrhoea. General anaesthetic and conscious sedation medication can also have side effects.
For all types of abortion, it's likely you will experience some stomach cramps and vaginal bleeding, too. These usually last a week or two. Sometimes light vaginal bleeding after a medical abortion can last up to a month.
After an abortion, you can:
Get advice if you experience heavy bleeding, severe pain, smelly vaginal discharge, a fever or ongoing signs of pregnancy, such as nausea and sore breasts. The clinic will give you the number of a 24-hour helpline to call if you have concerns.
You may experience a range of emotions after an abortion. If you need to discuss how you're feeling, contact the abortion service or ask your GP about post-abortion counselling.
You can also find NHS counselling services near you.
Abortions are generally very safe and most women won't experience any problems.
But like any medical treatment, there is a small risk that something could go wrong. The risk of complications increases the later in pregnancy an abortion is carried out.
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The main risks associated with an abortion are:
Women who have an abortion are no more likely to experience mental health problems than those who continue with their pregnancy.
There is also no link between having an abortion and an increased risk of breast cancer.
After having an abortion, you'll probably experience some period-type pains and vaginal bleeding.
This should start to gradually improve after a few days, but can last for one to two weeks. It's normal and is usually nothing to worry about.
But you should get advice if you experience any signs of a possible problem, such as:
The clinic will provide you with the number of a 24-hour helpline to call if you experience any problems after an abortion.
Having an abortion won't affect your chances of becoming pregnant and having normal pregnancies in the future.
Many women are able to get pregnant immediately afterwards, so you should start using contraception right away if you don't want this to happen. You should be advised about this at the time you have the abortion.
However, there's a very small risk to your fertility and future pregnancies if you develop a womb infection that isn't treated promptly. The infection could spread to your fallopian tubes and ovaries – known as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
But most infections are treated before they reach this stage and you'll often be given antibiotics before an abortion to reduce the risk of infection.
Having several abortions is associated with a slightly increased risk of giving birth prematurely, before the 37th week of pregnancy, in future pregnancies.
Talk to your doctor or an abortion advice service for more information if you're concerned about the possible risks of an abortion.