Are abortions painful?
In this article, we discuss whether abortions hurt, other side effects, and potential risks and complications. We also explore the potential emotional impact of having an abortion, minimizing pain and side effects, and getting advice about an abortion.
Do abortions hurt?
A woman's experience of an abortion can vary depending on the type she has.
The experience of an abortion varies between individuals. Abortions may cause some pain or cramping, but many women can manage this discomfort.
The level of pain and other side effects that a woman may experience largely depend on the type of abortion she has. The three most common types of abortion are:
- medical abortions
- vacuum aspiration
- dilation and evacuation
We discuss what a woman can expect during each of these procedures below:
A medical abortion is when a woman takes two prescribed abortion pills to end her pregnancy. According to Planned Pregnancy, a doctor will typically recommend this type of abortion up to 10 weeks after a woman's last period.
The first pill, mifepristone, stops the pregnancy from developing. The second pill, misoprostol, causes the uterus to contract and pass out the pregnancy tissue. Some women may experience moderate pain as a result of these uterine contractions.
Every woman who has a medical abortion will respond differently. Some women describe the experience as being similar to having a heavy period and cramps. Others may experience more intense cramping.
When someone has a medical abortion, they usually pass out the pregnancy tissue within 4–5 hours. Individuals may experience some bleeding or spotting for several weeks after taking the pills.
Vacuum aspiration is a type of surgical abortion that involves the use of gentle suction to remove the pregnancy tissue.
The doctor will give a woman an injection or medication to numb the cervix before performing the aspiration. Sometimes they prescribe a general anesthetic, but this is rare.
Because the procedure involves the use of pain relief medications, vacuum aspiration does not usually hurt. However, a woman may experience a dragging or pulling sensation during the process.
Dilation and evacuation
Dilation and evacuation is another type of surgical abortion that doctors typically recommend if the woman has been pregnant for more than 13 weeks, according to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
Dilation and evacuation involves the use of a general anesthetic, which puts the woman to sleep. This means she will not be conscious during the procedure and will be unable to feel pain.
The doctor begins by using dilators, which are thin rods, to open the woman's cervix. Then they use forceps and suction to remove the pregnancy tissue.
After having a dilation and evacuation procedure, ACOG state that a woman may experience some cramping for 1 or 2 days. She may also have spotting or bleeding for up to 2 weeks.
Other side effects of abortions
Some women may experience side effects after having an abortion. We discuss the possible side effects for each type of abortion below:
When a woman has a medical abortion, she may experience nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.
The potential side effects of a medical abortion include:
Surgical abortions include both vacuum aspiration and dilation and evacuation. The potential side effects of these procedures can include:
- blood clots
Risks and complications of abortions
Having an abortion is typically a low-risk medical process. However, in rare circumstances, complications can occur.
We discuss the potential complications for the different types of abortion below:
Although abortion pills are typically very safe and effective, they can sometimes fail to work correctly, which can lead to an incomplete abortion.
According to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, around 3 in 100 medical abortions are incomplete, which means the person may need to repeat the procedure. Sometimes, a doctor will need to perform a surgical abortion to remove the remaining pregnancy tissue.
Both vacuum aspiration and dilation and evacuation are safe and effective surgical procedures that carry a low risk of complications.
However, potential complications can include:
- remaining pregnancy tissue
- heavy bleeding
- injury to the cervix, uterus, or other organs
According to the ACOG, surgical abortions result in fewer complications than medical abortions. Fewer than 1 in 1,000 women experience complications during a second-trimester abortion.
Ways of minimizing pain and side effects
To minimize the pain and side effects of an abortion, a woman can try:
- taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medication, such as ibuprofen
- using a hot water bottle or warm compresses to help ease abdominal cramping
- having a warm bath to alleviate cramping
A doctor can also prescribe stronger medications if OTC pain relievers do not work.
Emotional impact of an abortion
A woman may choose to have an abortion if she does not want to continue with a pregnancy or if doing so poses a health risk. Medical and surgical abortions are safe, simple, low-risk ways to end a pregnancy.
Every person feels differently after having an abortion. Some women may feel relieved from the stress of an unintended pregnancy. Others may experience guilt after having an abortion, even though they may know it is the right decision for them.
If a woman feels guilty, sad, or anxious after having an abortion, she should speak to her doctor. The doctor can help her access talk therapy or support groups to process these feelings.
Getting advice about abortions
A woman can talk to a doctor to discuss the type of abortion that is right for her.
Having an abortion is a personal decision. What is right for one woman may not be right for another.
To get advice about abortion, a woman can speak to her doctor or research online. ACOG have an FAQ on induced abortions that answers some of the common questions that women may have.
Non-biased, scientific sources provide the most factual information on abortions. Understanding the science behind abortion will help a woman to make an informed choice that she is most comfortable with.
Medical and surgical abortions are typically low-risk ways to end a pregnancy, and every woman's experience is different.
Medical abortions may cause some pain and cramping because they cause the uterus to contract to expel the pregnancy tissue. A woman can usually manage the pain using OTC medications.
A woman undergoing a surgical abortion will experience little pain during the procedure because doctors give the woman a local or general anesthetic. However, the person may experience some cramping for a few days afterward.