What Are the Different Types of Abortion?

Know How Far Along You Can Be to Safely and Legally Have an Abortion

Young woman patient with gynecologist in the office
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To terminate a pregnancy, two types of abortion are available to women:

In determining what type of abortion to choose, access to and availability of abortion services along with the length of pregnancy play into the decision. Most women facing an unplanned pregnancy who opt for an abortion do so early on; just over 61% take place in the first 8 weeks of pregnancy, and 88% occur in the first trimester (before the 13th week of pregnancy.) Only 10% of abortions occur in the second trimester (between the 13th and 20th weeks of pregnancy.)

The risk of complications from abortion is very small. A fraction of a percent of abortion patients have complications that require hospitalization -- less than 0.3%

Medical Abortion

As the name suggests, medical abortions do not involve surgery or other invasive methods but rely on medications to end a pregnancy.

A medical abortion involves taking the drug mifepristone; often called 'the abortion pill,' its generic name is RU-486 and its brand name is Mifeprex. Mifepristone is not available over the counter and must be provided by a healthcare professional. A woman seeking a medical abortion can obtain one through a doctor's office or clinic and should expect two or more visits to complete the process, as another drug, misoprostol, must be taken to terminate the pregnancy.

Mifepristone is prescribed in the first trimester and is FDA-approved for use up to 49 days (7 weeks) after a woman's last period.

Although considered off-label (not FDA-approved), some providers may opt to use it up to 63 days (9 weeks) after the first day of a woman's last period, although its effectiveness is diminished after 7 weeks.

In 2014, medical abortions made up 24.1% of all abortions and 31% of abortions that took place within the first 8 weeks of pregnancy.

Surgical Abortion

All surgical abortions are medical procedures that must be done in a health care provider's office or clinic. There are several different surgical abortion options. How far along a woman is in her pregnancy often determines what method will be used.

Aspiration is an abortion procedure that can be performed on a woman up to 16 weeks after her last period. Aspiration, also known as vacuum aspiration, suction aspiration or D&A (dilation and aspiration), involves the insertion of a tube through the dilated cervix into the uterus. Gentle suction removes fetal tissue and empties the uterus.

In some circumstances, a spoon-shaped instrument called a curette is used to scrape the uterine lining to remove any remaining tissue. This procedure is called a D&C (dilation and curettage.)

Dilation and evacuation (D&E) is typically performed during the second trimester (between the 13th and 24th week of pregnancy.) Similar to a D&C, a D&E involves other instruments (such as forceps) along with suction to empty the uterus. In later second-trimester abortions, a shot administered through the abdomen may be necessary to ensure fetal demise before the D&E begins.

"Facts on Induced Abortion in the United States." The Guttmacher Institute, Guttmacher.org. July 2008.
"In-Clinic Abortion Procedures." PlannedParenthood.org. Retrieved 24 September 2009.
"The Abortion Pill." Mifepristone.com. Retrieved 23 September 2009.
"The Abortion Pill (Medication Abortion)." PlannedParenthood.org. Retrieved 23 September 2009.