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What Actually Happens When You Have An Abortion?

We asked a doctor everything you've ever wondered about having an abortion, but were too afraid to ask.

There are two different kinds of abortion.
The kind of abortion procedure you have depends on how long you've been pregnant and your personal preference. When talking about types of abortion, people usually refer to the two categories of medical abortion (where you take abortion pills) and surgical abortion (where doctors directly remove your pregnancy).

1. Medical abortion

This involves taking medication to make the lining of your womb come away, ending your pregnancy.

You can have a medical abortion up to the legal abortion limit of 24 weeks but your experience will be different depending on how long you've been pregnant.

Up to ten weeks of pregnancy, you go to a clinic and swallow a pill which initially has little effect. Then, one or two days later you come back and take another medicine which is placed either inside your vagina or between your cheek and gum in your mouth.

The medicine you'd take would make you bleed for four to six hours.

The further along you are, the longer the process will take, so you may have to stay in the clinic or hospital while you pass the pregnancy.

The longer you've been pregnant, the more similar the process becomes to a natural miscarriage, and you may need a small operation if all the tissue doesn't come away.

Between 20 and 24 weeks of pregnancy you may have the abortion medicine injected into your womb.

- Will I have to see a scan?
Doctors usually want to do a scan to check how pregnant you are, since this is important when working out what kind of abortion you can have.

This may sound daunting but Patricia, medical director at British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), says that doctors are always careful not to cause you unnecessary distress.

"We try to manage it sensitively and we turn the screen away if the woman doesn't want to view the ultrasound," she tells

- Will I have to see the fetus?
What you're likely to see depends on how long you've been pregnant. The further along you are, the larger the pregnancy will be and the more bleeding you'll have.

"We try to prepare women for the fact that that they might see some small clots about 30 millimeters," says Patricia. "The pregnancy will usually come away surrounded by some clots but occasionally you might see the small white sack that the fetus develops in."

Further along, the pregnancy will be larger, but every effort is made to prevent you from seeing anything which may make you feel uncomfortable.

"Later on in pregnancy, we keep track of your symptoms and there's usually a stage when people say they feel like they need to bear down or push," explains Patricia. "The process can sometimes be unpredictable but we try to remove the pregnancy quite quickly from the bed so that you don't see anything."

- Can I use tampons to manage the bleeding?
With heavier bleeding it can be tempting to opt for a tampon to avoid any leakage, but Patricia says it's important to stick with pads.

"We don't advise using a tampon because you want the pregnancy to come out," she says. "Also, it's important to be able to keep an eye on your bleeding. If women are soaking two or more pads in an hour for two hours in a row, then they need to contact us."

2. Surgical abortion

There are two kinds of surgical abortion, which one you have depends on how long you've been pregnant.

Vacuum aspiration (up to 15 weeks)

A small suction tube is placed in your cervix and the pregnancy is sucked out.

Dilation and evacuation (15 to 24 weeks)

Your cervix is gently widened using forceps and the pregnancy is removed using a suction tube.

- Can I be asleep?
Dilation and evacuation is always done under general anesthetic, but for a vacuum aspiration you can either be totally put to sleep or stay awake with just a local anesthetic to numb your cervix.

According to Patricia, there are many factors which may affect a woman's choice of anaesthetic.

"It comes down to what you want to experience and what restrictions you have," she explains. "For some women, it's super important that they don't remember anything, but some women want to be awake because they want to know what's happening with them, and they want to maintain some degree of control."

Patricia says: "Some women haven't told anyone about the abortion and therefore can't bring someone with them, so a local anesthetic is a better option. After a general anesthetic you also can't drive, and you feel a bit woozy for a while. Some women may need to go to work after the abortion or pick their kids up from school, so this might prove difficult for them."

- Will I see anything?
No, even if you have a vacuum aspiration while you're awake, you'll be positioned so you can't see anything.

- Can I have sex after an abortion?
You should avoid having sex for a week after an abortion. When you do start having sex again you can become pregnant almost immediately.


This article originally appeared on Minor edits have been made by the editors.