20th September, 20216 min read

What are the different types of abortion?

Medical reviewer:
Dr Adiele Hoffman
Dr Adiele Hoffman
Helen Prentice
Helen Prentice
Last reviewed: 14/09/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

What is an abortion?

Sometimes known as a termination of pregnancy, an abortion is a procedure to end a pregnancy. If you’re considering an abortion, you probably have lots of questions.

Before having an abortion, you’ll need an appointment with a doctor or healthcare practitioner. This is a good time to find out more. The different types of abortion available to you may depend on how far along with the pregnancy you are, and your medical history.

Laws about when and if abortions can be carried out vary, depending on the country you’re in. In general, however, the earlier the procedure is done, the safer it will be. So it’s a good idea to get advice as soon as you can.

Read on to learn about the different types of abortion, and when to see a doctor.

Abortion methods

The type of abortion you can have may depend on the stage of pregnancy you’re at, including whether you’re in the first trimester (first 3 months) or second trimester (second 3 months).

There are 2 types of abortion: medical and surgical. Medical abortion is when you take medicines to terminate the pregnancy, while a surgical abortion involves a minor operation.

Medical abortion

A medical abortion – or the abortion pill – is when you take 2 medicines to end the pregnancy, usually in the form of tablets taken 1 to 2 days apart.

This method is routinely recommended if you’re less than 10 weeks’ pregnant, in which case you’re usually allowed to take the medicine at home. This is also known as an early medical abortion.

If you’re more than 10 weeks’ pregnant, you’ll need to take the tablets at a clinic or hospital, but you can usually go home between the 2 doses.

The first tablet contains a medicine called mifepristone, which blocks the main pregnancy hormone, progesterone. The second tablet contains a medicine called misoprostol, which makes your womb contract, causing cramping.

Within 4 to 6 hours of taking the second tablet, the lining of your womb should break down and the pregnancy will be passed out through your vagina.

In some cases, more than one dose of the second tablet is needed. And occasionally, the pregnancy doesn’t pass. If this happens, you’ll need an operation to remove it.

The medicines sometimes cause short-term side effects, such as diarrhoea, dizziness or feeling sick. You may also need to take a special pregnancy test or have a scan to check that the pregnancy has ended.

In most countries, including the UK, it’s against the law to try to cause your own abortion, and this includes buying abortion pills online. Such medicines could also be unsafe and ineffective.

Medical abortion is recommended in the first trimester

Surgical abortion

Vacuum aspiration

Vacuum aspiration is possible during the first trimester and up to 14 weeks of pregnancy. It removes the pregnancy with gentle suction, using a tube inserted through the neck of the womb (cervix) and into the womb.

Depending on your stage of pregnancy and your personal choice, you may be given a local anaesthetic (to numb your cervix), sedation or general anaesthetic (where you’re asleep).

The procedure takes 5 to 10 minutes, and you’ll usually be able to go home a few hours later. As with all surgical abortion methods, you’ll probably have some cramping and vaginal bleeding afterwards.

Occasionally, some pregnancy tissue stays in the womb after a vacuum aspiration, which will need to be removed.

Dilation and evacuation

This type of surgical abortion is usually recommended if you’re in your second trimester of pregnancy, between 14 and 24 weeks.

Dilation and evacuation is normally done under sedation or general anaesthetic, so you’re likely to be asleep. You may need to attend the clinic the day before to help prepare your cervix.

During the procedure, your cervix may be widened with thin rods called dilators. The pregnancy is removed using an instrument called forceps, inserted into your womb through your cervix. A tube is then inserted to gently complete the evacuation using suction.

It takes 10 to 20 minutes and you’ll usually be able to go home the same day, after a couple of hours of rest and recovery. You shouldn’t drive for 24 hours after having a general anaesthetic.

Again, there’s a small risk of some pregnancy tissue being left in the womb, which will need to be removed. There’s also a low risk of heavy bleeding, infection or injury to the womb or cervix.

Induced abortion

In rare cases, it’s necessary to perform a late termination of pregnancy by bringing on (inducing) labour.

You’ll be given medicines to bring on contractions and labour. If you’re more than 22 weeks’ pregnant, an injection to stop the foetal heartbeat may be given before the induction.

This type of abortion might be offered if your baby has been diagnosed with an illness or condition that could cause death or serious disability, or if continuing with the pregnancy poses a threat to your life.

Deciding whether to have an induced abortion can be very painful and difficult, and you’ll be advised to talk to a range of healthcare professionals to ensure you have all the information you need. You may also have access to counselling if you need extra support.

When to see a doctor

Most people recover quickly physically after an abortion, but some people have more pain and bleeding than others.

Talk to your doctor if you’re worried, or if you:

  • still feel pregnant a week after an abortion
  • have pain or bleeding that doesn’t improve after a few days
  • have a high temperature (fever) or flu-like symptoms
  • have unusual vaginal discharge

A high temperature or vaginal discharge could mean you have an infection, which may need treating with antibiotics.

As well as physical symptoms, it’s common to feel a range of emotions before, during and after an abortion. If you’re worried or want to discuss how you’re feeling, get in touch with an abortion service or doctor. They may be able to refer you for counselling or provide details of free, confidential support groups.

Key takeaways

  • if you’re considering an abortion, you should see a doctor to discuss your options
  • there are 2 types of abortion: medical and surgical
  • a medical abortion is when you take a medicine to terminate the pregnancy
  • a surgical abortion involves a minor operation, which differs depending on your stage of pregnancy
  • in rare cases, an induced abortion may be done for medical reasons
Was this article helpful?

We include references at the end of every article, so you know where we get our facts. We only ever take evidence from medically-recognised sources, approved by the UK National Health Service's The Information Standard, or certified by Health On the Net (HON). When we talk about popular health trends or claims, we'll always tell you if there's very little or no evidence to back them up. Our medical team also checks our sources, making sure they're appropriate and that we've interpreted the science correctly.

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.