Medical abortion is a procedure that uses various medications to end a pregnancy. A medical abortion is started either in a doctor's office or at home with visits to your health care provider. Medical abortion doesn't require anesthesia or surgery, but it can only be done early in pregnancy.
Pursuing a medical abortion is a major decision with emotional and psychological consequences. If you're considering medical abortion, make sure you understand what the procedure entails, the side effects, and possible risks and complications.
Why it's done
A woman's reasons for pursuing medical abortion are highly personal. You may have mixed feelings about being pregnant. You may have major financial problems. Or you may not be capable of parenting due to mental health problems or other issues. For most of these circumstances there are alternatives, such as adoption. Sometimes a woman may have a serious medical problem that poses a life-threatening risk to her during pregnancy.
Some women prefer medical abortion over other types of abortion because some methods of medical abortion may be done at home, providing privacy and some degree of control.
Potential risks of medical abortion include:
You must be certain about your decision before taking any medication to begin a medical abortion. If you decide to continue the pregnancy after beginning to take the medications used in medical abortion, your baby will be at risk of significant birth defects.
Medical abortion hasn't been shown to affect future pregnancies unless complications develop.
Medical abortion may not be an option if you:
Women who want to end a pregnancy but can't have a medical abortion may want to consider surgical abortion instead.
How you prepare
If you're considering medical abortion, meet with your health care provider to discuss the procedure. Your health care provider will likely:
Proceeding with a medical abortion is always a very serious decision and in most cases should not be done without discussions with people you need to support you in such a major step. Talking with your partner, family or friends may help. Talk with your health care provider, spiritual adviser or a counselor to get answers to your questions, help you weigh alternatives and consider the impact the procedure may have on your future.
Keep in mind that no health care provider is required to perform an abortion and that in some states there are certain legal requirements and waiting periods you must follow before proceeding with an abortion.
What you can expect
Medical abortion doesn't require surgery or anesthesia. The procedure can be started in a health care provider's office or clinic. Sometimes a medical abortion can be done at home, but you'll still need to make several visits to your health care provider to assess the effectiveness of the treatment and identify potential complications.
During the procedure
The medications used in a medical abortion cause vaginal bleeding and abdominal cramping. They may also cause:
You may be given medications to manage pain during and after the medical abortion. You may also be given antibiotics.
Your health care provider will explain how much pain and bleeding to expect, depending on the number of weeks of your pregnancy. You might not be able to go about your normal daily routine during this time, but it's unlikely you'll need bed rest. Make sure you have plenty of absorbent sanitary pads.
If you have a medical abortion in a health care provider's office or clinic, you'll have a pelvic exam before you're given additional doses of misoprostol to see if the fetus has been expelled. The frequency and strength of your uterine contractions also will be monitored. While the most discomfort may last one to two hours, spotting before and bleeding after could last two weeks.
If you have a medical abortion at home, you'll need access to a health care provider who can answer questions by phone and access to emergency services. You'll also need to be able to identify complications.
After the procedure
If vaginal bleeding doesn't begin within 48 hours after treatment, you may have had an incomplete abortion or still be pregnant. In these cases, a surgical abortion may be needed.
After a medical abortion, you'll need a follow-up visit with your health care provider to make sure you're healing properly and to evaluate your uterine size, bleeding and any signs of infection. To reduce the risk of infection, don't have vaginal intercourse or use tampons for two weeks after the abortion.
Your health care provider will likely ask if you still feel pregnant, if you saw the expulsion of the gestational sac or fetus, how much bleeding you had, and whether you're still bleeding. If your health care provider suspects an incomplete abortion or ongoing pregnancy, you may need an ultrasound and possible follow-up treatment.
After a medical abortion, you'll likely experience a range of emotions — such as loss, sadness and anger. These feelings are normal. Consider talking to a counselor about your feelings.
Last Updated: 2012-05-31
© 1998-2016 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. A single copy of these materials may be reprinted for noncommercial personal use only. "Mayo," "Mayo Clinic," "MayoClinic.com," "Mayo Clinic Health Information," "Reliable information for a healthier life" and the triple-shield Mayo logo are trademarks of Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
Terms and conditions of use