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Abortion safety - the facts

Abortion care is a very safe, simple and common medical process or procedure. At MSI Reproductive Choices, we are working towards a world where everyone, everyone has reproductive choice, with access to contraception and safe, legal abortion care. Read on for information on the different abortion options, abortion safety and other abortion facts and statistics.

Abortion safety - the statistics

Abortion, when delivered in line with the World Health Organisation’s guidelines, is one of the world’s safest medical procedures. Here are the facts on abortion safety: 

What is a safe abortion?  

Abortion is a very safe, simple, and common medical process or procedure to end a pregnancy, either via a surgical abortion or a medical abortion (abortion with pills). Worldwide, an estimated 29% of pregnancies – nearly one in three - end in an abortion every year. In the UK, 1 in 3 women will have an abortion in their lifetime and in the United States, 1 in 4 women will do so. 

Safe abortion is defined as an abortion carried out with a method that is recommended by the World Health Organisation, appropriate for the point of gestation (the number of days or weeks since the person’s last menstrual period) and provided by someone with the necessary skills and commodities.

Safe abortions can be provided either with pills, known as a medical abortion, or a simple outpatient procedure in a clinic, known as a surgical abortion. The most appropriate method will depend on the gestation, local clinical policies and the client’s preferences.

How safe is abortion?

When completed in line with the World Health Organisation’s guidelines, abortion is one of the safest medical procedures in the world. A study by the University of California, San Francisco looked at over 50,000 abortions performed and found that over 97% of patients received a safe, simple and complete procedure. 

All abortion services provided by MSI Reproductive Choices are provided in line with the World Health Organisation’s definition of safe, using a recommended method and supported by trained providers.

When completed in line with the World Health Organisation's guidelines, abortion is one of the safest medical procedures in the world.

Abortion options - the methods and their safety

Abortions can be provided safely either with pills, known as a medical abortion or via a simple procedure in a clinic, known as a surgical abortion. In some countries, medical abortions can also be self-managed, by accessing abortion pills from a pharmacy or via telemedicine, where pills are sent by post. 

Medical abortion and telemedicine - method and safety 

A medical abortion, also known as 'abortion with pills', is a safe way to end a pregnancy and effective 97% of the time when used correctly.

The pills are usually taken within the first 12 weeks of gestation, but this will vary by pregnancy and local laws and regulations. For example, in England and Wales, clients can access a medical abortion up to 9 weeks and 6 days of pregnancy, in line with local practices.

The most effective method of medical abortion is the combination regimen of mifepristone and misoprostol, taken in the first 12 weeks (known as the first trimester) of pregnancy. First, the mifepristone pill is taken, which blocks the main pregnancy hormone. Then usually 1 to 2 days later, the second medicine, misoprostol, is taken, which causes the lining of the womb to break down, causing bleeding and loss of the pregnancy. A few hours after taking the second pill, the pregnancy will be passed through the vagina.

These medications can either be taken in a clinic or can be safely self-managed by women at home, with the right support. The World Health Organisation’s guidelines on health worker roles recommend that women themselves can safely self-manage medical abortion when they have access to the appropriate information and a health facility if they require medical support at any stage.  

Evidence also shows that medical abortions via telemedicine, where the abortion pills are sent via post, are just as safe and effective as having a medical abortion in a facility. Studies have shown that telemedicine can reduce waiting times for clients and is a preferred route for many. In a recent UK study, two-thirds of telemedicine clients shared that they would choose telemedicine again should they need an abortion in the future.

People seeking abortion services should always be offered a choice of method, whenever possible.

Surgical abortion – method and safety 

A surgical abortion is a simple outpatient procedure in a clinic to remove the pregnancy from the womb, using either a vacuum aspiration process or a method called dilation and evacuation (D&E), depending on the duration of pregnancy. Both methods are extremely safe, when undertaken in line with the World Health Organisation’s guidelines, and most women can go home within a few hours of the procedure. 

Depending on the method and how many weeks pregnant a client is (their period of gestation), the procedure might require anaesthetic or sedation, while for other clients, pain relief such as ibuprofen will be sufficient.

Surgical abortion before 14 weeks of pregnancy

A vacuum or suction aspiration, also known as manual vacuum aspiration, is a method that can be used up to 14 weeks of pregnancy, by inserting a small tube through the cervix to remove the pregnancy. The process takes around 5 to 10 minutes to complete and is between 95% and 100% effective when completed by a trained medical professional.

Surgical abortion after 14 weeks of pregnancy

After 14 weeks of pregnancy, a surgical abortion method called dilatation and evacuation (D&E) is usually used, which involves inserting specialised instruments through the cervix to remove the pregnancy. D&E is usually carried out under sedation or general anaesthetic and takes around 10 to 20 minutes to complete. Clients can usually go home the same day. 

What is the safest abortion method? 

The abortion method that is safest and right for someone will depend on a range of factors, including gestation and the client’s personal preference. The healthcare provider will be able to advise on which options are available during the client counselling session, so the client can make an informed choice.

MSI provider talking to clients

How can we improve access to safe abortion care?

In some countries, legal and regulatory restrictions prevent access to safe abortion care, driving people to unsafe abortion methods. Read more about what unsafe abortion is, the facts and statistics on unsafe abortion and what we can do to end it.

MSI Reproductive Choices advocates globally for access to abortion care that is safe, legal, and affordable. Donate to support our work to deliver reproductive choice globally.

Find Safe Abortion Services

We believe in a world where no one is forced to risk their health or their life for the right to determine their own future. That’s why we are committed to ending unsafe abortion for good.

By providing safe abortion services when and where they’re needed, and where the legal context allows, we support women to make the reproductive choices that are best for them and help to reduce the number of women that are forced to seek unsafe services.

If you’re looking to access safe abortion services, we may be able to assist you depending on where you live and your situation. Please head to where we work via the link below to find your local service.

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